Current debate on the changes to AP world history


Peter Stearns' blog


Teach Tolerance…/ap-world-history-is-worth-saving

The Hill…/391910-ap-world-history-teachers-fight…

The Atlantic

The AHA's annoucement…/aha-letter-to-college-board-re…

A new website:

is compiling letters sent to the College Board:

Including a joint letter from all the former Chief Readers and test development committee chairs
and individual letters from Ross Dunn, Pat Manning, and many current APWH teachers

Laura J. Mitchell
UC Irvine

In an effort to stimulate a little discussion on this topic for the list, I am curious if there was much formal/informal discussion at the recent AP World History grade-a-poolza concerning the proposed changes?

I'm going to interpret Eric's invitation to discuss the APWH controversy broadly. I wasn't at the reading, but I saw the video (LOL).

I'm very interested to hear from those who were at the Reading about any noteworthy conversations or observations that happened outside of the Open Forum, which seems to have generated more heat than light.

I also recognize that the conversation has moved on since then.

There was general conversation about the proposed changes at last week's WHA meeting--references in Merry Wiesner-Hanks' opening remarks, the keynote by Greg Cushman, in the plenary session honoring William McNeil, and in a well-attended session on "The Manthropocene." The move to change the scope of the field by a powerful but non-expert, ultimately non-academic voice does not appear to sit well with many members of the world history community.

There were also two sessions about the proposed changes, one "late-breaking" (i.e. organized days before the meeting) session for college faculty members to learn more about APWH and what the changes could mean for their institution's credit policies. Alan Karras facilitated this meeting.

The lunch session for high school teachers, with lunch provided by the College Board, was originally on the WHA program, but took on a new valence in light of the changes. I was in the room for that conversation. My bare-bones summary:
A) high school teachers are overwhelmed by the relentless pace of revisions to the course & exam; one year is just not enough time to adapt to changes of any magnitude; teachers feel disrespected by the CB.

B) College faculty with a commitment to the intellectual underpinnings of the course feel strongly about the importance of a long time frame for the class.

C) CB staff are defending the Board's prerogative to initiate changes, regardless of feedback from stake-holders; CB cites a range of data to substantiate the decision to change the WH course, but has not provided public access to the statistics they are citing in support of the proposed changes.

Some specific points of contention re "data" (in air quotes, since this evidence not available for general consultation or peer review):
[My editorial comments follow in brackets]

Is student performance on questions about periods before 1450 really worse than questions on material after 1450?
[Regardless of the data here, is poor exam performance a reason to change the exam, rather than provide more support for teachers and students on the relevant skills & topics. Does the Bar Association change the Bar Exam to eliminate the sections most test-takers have trouble with?]

What are the SPECIFIC college and university AP credit policies behind CB's assertion that World History credit is treated differently than US or European history credit?
[I did a random search of 5 major universities; 4 had the same AP acceptance policy for US, European, and World histories; only Harvard awards credit for US and Euro but not world. Perhaps they don't have an equivalent lower division world history course? Clearly checking the policies of 5 campuses is barely a start, but I'm not that invested in validating or overturning CB's claim. I'd rather they just share the data they're working from. If anyone is super curious about this, we could crowd source this with a google doc and pretty quickly have a lot of info to work with.]

There is concern about the low pass rates for APWH. But many teachers assert that APWH pass rates are actually higher than for some other subjects--and those courses/exams are not being truncated. Can CB point to specific pass rates in comparison to other subjects to support the proposal to truncate the course?

Can the CB collect and share data about SUBSEQUENT AP and other academic performance for students in world history?
[Around 80% of APWH test takers are sophomores. How many 15-year-olds actually have the reading and writing skills to perform well in a demanding college class? College faculty, including me and Alan Karras, argued in this meeting that the pass rate SHOULD be low for APWH. But not passing (and thus earning college credit) for APWH as a sophomore should NOT be considered failure on the part of the student, the teacher, or the school. The year-long engagement with high level materials should set student up to do very well in future AP history courses, for success in other subjects, and for success in college.
CB has data about the positive long-term academic consequences for students who take just 1 AP class in high school. It's not just about passing a single high-stakes test. ]

NEW INFORMATION: the CB convened a meeting with staff and some of the test development committee members to consider changes to the proposed changes. It seems that the current working proposition is to offer TWO AP world history courses, construed broadly as "ancient world history" and "modern world history," which would start at 1200 CE.
Schools could opt to offer:
A) two years of APWH, one course in each year
B) the sequence of two courses in one year, with the students taking two exams in May
C) offer either one of the courses

I see problems of equity and access in this proposal, along with structural problems of alignment with state standards.

Given that world history is mandated as one year of high school social studies in most states, how many public schools will make a choice to offer two years of this subject, when the curriculum is already crowded with competing demands?

Since most state standards specify world history from at least ancient times, if not the Paleolithic, how would either of the proposed new courses substitute for on-grade-level courses, as APWH does now?

How many under-resourced districts will have the funds or the teaching labor to staff a new AP course?

Students who have two years to cover the same material will have a decided advantage when it comes to taking a standardized test. AP scores are normed each year to account for what students accomplished, so higher scores from a group of students who had a year to focus on each test will disadvantage students who take each course in a semester, then 2 tests in May.

I fear that spreading the course over two years will only increase the tendency to stuff in more material. The problem as I see it is not with the time frame for course, but rather with the inclination for "coverage." If we could really empower teachers with the confidence to "dare to omit," (that's high school, AP, and college teachers all around), we might be able to shift this conversation from coverage and content to skills and concepts, which will serve students better in the long run.

Finally, the point where I am most personally invested: world history is about big ideas, long time frames, broad and shifting geographies, and moving through analytical scales from global to micro. It's a new way of thinking about the past, and for most students and teachers, it's hard.
So are lots of other things we ask students to learn.
To paraphrase Merry Wiesner-Hanks in the New York Times: the human body is complicated; do we cut anatomy and only deal with the waist up?
To paraphrase Lincoln Paine: Pi is a complicated number; will the CB round it down to 3?

Comments, additions, corrections from any of you who were at the CB lunch in Milwaukee?

Thoughts about dividing AP world history into two courses, when US and European histories, also conceived as year-long surveys, will remain intact?

Conversation about what world history means to you as a scholar and educator?

What does it mean for the field that this proposed change to an AP course has generated sustained public attention and comment? When both Teach Tolerance and Breitbart weigh in two weeks apart on the same issue, it's clearly getting broad public traction?

How can we continue to shape public debate on this topic?

Laura J. Mitchell
UC Irvine

This doesn't directly answer any of Laura's questions on the topic.

For those interested in catching up on the latest media news regarding the AP World discussion, you can find all the links to news outlets here:
Letters from scholars and teachers of the course can be found here:

At this point, as AP World teachers are waiting to hear word, many of us are hoping that the College Board will delay it's decision in order to vet their proposal more thoroughly. Clearly, CB and Trevor Packer made a mistake to announce what they did on May 24. It wasn’t carefully considered and thought out. I would rather have CB take the time to make a well-considered and well-vetted decision rather than rush and have to backtrack, which is what they are doing now. Since May 24, the different AP World course proposals has gone from 1450 - present, 1200 - present, and running two courses.

Practically speaking, the AP World Test Development Committee (TDC), which is made up of equal numbers of college professors and high school teachers can’t even convene on such short notice since most of them are on summer vacation and cannot/should not commit to hours of work so Trevor can announce something more concrete in July. We haven’t really heard from any others except for Rick Warner (who has been a saint to deal with all the PR issues and be the bridge between AP teachers and CB. I hope they compensated him for his extra time, since he literally spoke to hundreds of people and spent hours for it and was quite exhausted last weekend at WHA). The two exam idea was only thrown out to us last weekend at the WHA. Whatever Trevor will have to announce in July will only be half-baked (or worse) without the full feedback from TDC and other stakeholders.

I've been pushing for at least a 6 month to a year delay in their final decision so that there can be a period of public discourse. I have not yet heard back from CB representatives.

The College Board's (CB) unilateral decision to abridge AP World history without input from the world history community seems odd as it excludes the community they are serving. Generally speaking, the CB’s argument for abridgment is that a year-long world history course (from the beginnings to the present) is a beast that needs taming and the expansiveness of AP World History has become too challenging for students and faculty alike. Of course, there was no mention about what is valuable, about how to provide a solid historical foundation for our students, and by extension to our communities, the CB has simply told us they have data, they know best, and they made the changes.

The solution to the CB’s concerns about AP World History should rest with ongoing discussions about how to improve, how to become more selective, and how to develop ways for expanded professional development – not a unilateral decision to eliminate world history. Make no mistake, removing the eras from the paleolithic to 1200/1450 CE is essentially removing the human past from view and saying we sprouted up over the past 1200 years. From what I’ve observed, there has been a gradual movement away from “pre-modern history” for some time and the recent AP World history decision is symptomatic of a larger problem; namely, the way many institutions, inclusive of graduate programs, tend to ignore or minimize coverage of cultural foundation periods as if they are either common knowledge or irrelevant to the present. The idea of ignoring the bulk of human history to focus on the past five hundred, or thousand years sends an important message to our communities; namely, students should remain ignorant of our world’s cultural foundations. Instead of continuing to develop strategies to engage students and prepare teachers for the expansiveness of world history, the recent AP decision has the potential to produce myopic and woefully under-prepared students. Examining the pre-1450 era, and the history of interactions and connections that have shaped the development of cultures and civilizations, helps prepare students to better understand the diversity of cultures in the present. The argument often runs along these lines: there’s not enough time in the curriculum, or there’s just too much to cover, or faculty need more time for research and professional development to teach the distant past, or the ancient worlds don’t have any relevance for students in the 21st century. There are challenges in all these areas, but let us accept the importance and relevance of these challenges and engage them with an eye toward inclusive solutions.

Without the pre-1450 era, students will not be introduced to how we emerged and developed over millions of years, let alone how the first communities and later civilizations developed into the present age. Indeed, there is no need to smash monuments and destroy artifacts when with the stroke of a pen, or the tapping of a keyboard, authorities can simply re-write the past by excluding it. Among other things, this censoring of the distant past would ignore the study of human origins and let stand faith-based frameworks enshrined by a variety of ancient creation myths that accompanied the development of early human cultures and continue to resonate as some groups insist that creationism be taught side by side with evolutionary biology or paleo-anthropology and the like. In addition to human origins, there many examples that justify the value of a broad-spectrum world history course such as AP World History, which is also instructive for undergraduate/graduate programs that have a tendency to privilege the modern era. If we privilege the modern era then we are not introducing, let alone examining, the constants of human history: migration, cultural-linguistic changes, and the interactions and connections that have shaped the human condition since the first Paleolithic communities.
Additionally, are we to ignore the history of religious-cultural traditions? Did the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions simply appear without any connections to one another or to an interactive cultural context from the 2nd Millennium BCE to the 8th Century CE? Did Hinduism simply grow from sacred soil, or did it emerge over centuries of migration and interactions from the Vedic Age to modern era? Are we to let stand the scriptures of these and other faiths without historical contextualization that comes from evidence and analysis? Eliminating the pre-1200/1450 periods from AP World History and excluding them from undergraduate/graduate requirements may not be the wisest thing to do. In short, such a decision removes the cultural-historical rear-view mirror that is so essential as we move forward in our lives. The ancient world is not so much the distant past as it is our past and informs the world we live in, so ignoring it by excision is myopic and irresponsible.

Lastly, such a monumental decision to eliminate whatever came before 1450/1200, should have sparked a deliberative process about how to improve not unilaterally ignore the challenges that come with engaging the foundational eras of our past. On process alone, the College Board deserves a failing grade, but more importantly what does it say about AP education when the agency in charge of a history curriculum across the country makes decisions in isolation of stake-holders and world history scholarship? Among other things, it questions the veracity of the CB’s judgment.

Colleges, like my own, regularly teach a year-long, two semester, course in world history. If AP is to be AP why should it not be able to do the same, using the materials that the colleges use? And why should students not receive credit for two college courses? This will be difficult for AP students because they are so much younger than college students, and so much newer to the academic enterprise, but AP is supposed to be college level work.

Several posts have noted that students have a harder time with the ancient world section. If this be true, it would not be surprising. It is their very first encounter with college level work. They may do better in the modern world segment not because it is easier, but because they will already have completed the academic experience of studying the ancient world, the first section of the course.

Howard Spodek
Temple University

Robert Strayer
Emeritus: The College at Brockport: State University of New York

Let’s Pause:

As the debate over AP World History unfolds, there is a case to be made for simply pausing, for suspending for a year or even two years any further action/decision about the shape of the course and its exam:
• The course was previously revised just two years ago. Announcing yet another major overhaul must surely feel overwhelming to those who are teaching the course.
• It has become clear that there is substantial opposition to the May24 announcement about limiting the course to the post-1450 period. And the most recent notion about two distinct courses with options for various schools or districts is complicated and highly problematic, as Laura Mitchell has pointed out.
• The World History community, reflected in the recent WHA meeting in Milwaukee and the letter from its Executive Committee, discloses widespread opposition to any attempt to seriously truncate the chronological time-scale of World History. Those larger and variable time-scales represent the heart of the World History perspective. Eliminating or seriously abbreviating them means that any such course essentially ceases to be World History as it has been understood in this country. CB is supposed to follow, not to lead, the intellectual development of the discipline.
• The entire process by which the CB has unveiled its proposals for restructuring the course has been anything but transparent and has neglected the kind of consultation with various stakeholders that might move us toward some kind of consensus. And rushing a decision by mid-July seems unwise as Angela Lee has suggested.

So might we all pause for a time to think this through without the pressure of an imminent deadline? To the extent that the current AP World History course overly burdens teachers and students, there is a clear alternative to simply chopping off most of human experience. That alternative involves reducing the density of what is required, diminishing coverage of content, and focusing on skills and concepts with a more limited number of concrete examples. Developing such an approach takes time and requires wide consultation. It might involve regional forums with AP teachers, reaching out to leading scholars in the field, and actively involving the leadership of the WHA in the review. Such a process holds the possibility of engaging a much wider constituency and revising the course in ways that honor its broad scope while rendering it more teachable.

Cordially -- Robert Strayer

David Kalivas's points all seem very well taken.

I'd like to offer a comment about one criticism of the 1450 cut-off decision, this one from the AHA. I think it is revealing. From their letter in opposition to the change:

"While recognizing the challenges of teaching the current course with its broad scope, the AHA believes that this particular revision is likely to reduce the teaching of precolonial histories at the high school level. It risks creating a Western-centric perspective at a time when history as a discipline and world history as a field have sought to restore as many voices as possible to the historical record and the classroom."

I disagree with this, while agreeing that the entire cut-off idea at 1200 or 1450 is a terrible and short-sighted reaction to what are obviously real problems. As I see it, these problems arise because of the way the course almost mandates vast and superficial coverage that results in little substantive understanding by most students. (Or at least that is how I read the real issue.)

The giveaway in the AHA's statement is the phrase "pre-colonial." Given the extensive history of imperial conquests prior to 1450 how can the era prior to that possibly be seen as "pre-colonial" (e.g. Rome, Han China, the Arab conquests, the Mongols, the Aztec dominion over tributary tribes, the Mauryan Empire - even the amazing Ashoka, after all, grieved over his conquest of Kalinga in which he says 100,000 were killed.) In fact, given this mindset, I think the AHA's fears about 1450 and up are exactly wrong. Such a focus would almost certainly be "Western-centric" only in lending itself to more disproportionate attention on the West's many crimes.

Don't get me wrong. The West has many crimes to atone for - and actually has in regards to some. However, I think "atonement" is a religious concept that has no place in a well-designed world history course.

As I see it, the problem with the course is the unconstrained coverage of everything that it seems to seek. Unconstrained coverage and a preference for broad sociological and anthropological generalization. I have mixed feelings about Laura Mitchell's preferences - "big ideas, long time frames, broad and shifting geographies, and moving through analytical scales from global to micro." I like this as stated, but I think a relentless drive to be "inclusive" of everyone and every cultural "identity," undermines any chance of making Laura's list possible in a way that can enlist the imaginations and interest of secondary school students.

My two cents as someone who works on the margins of this field, not in the classroom or lecture hall, where I recognize the real challenges lie.

Anyone who reads the AP World History Course and Exam Description will see that, as Jonathan Burack points out, the current course guidelines mandate “vast and superficial coverage.” Moreover, these guidelines, specifically the lengthy Key Concept outlines, take the form of thematically organized declarative historical statements and phrases that offer AP teachers little guidance for selecting and ordering the week-to-week topics for a school year of work.

I think, however, that the answer to that problem is neither to saw off all historical periods that precede 1450 or even 1200 (a parsimonious compromise on the part of the College Board) nor to exclude less of the course as it is currently designed by simply weeding out the Key Concepts, leaving somewhat shorter but still lengthy lists of declarative generalizations. Doing that will accomplish little to relieve teachers of the stress and strain of trying to “cover” as many of these generalizations as possible out of concern that any of them might appear on the Big Exam. In my view the course should be built on analytically concrete, engaging “big picture” questions at the global scale, as Laura Mitchell advocates. From that scale, teachers and students would delve deeper into historical problems at smaller scales, connecting them analytically to the “big pictures” at every opportunity. The course guidelines should also offer teachers a selection of problems and questions to investigate at these smaller scales (regional and local) rather than mandate a particular set of them. Furthermore, the practice of posing questions (rather than providing answers without questions, which, according to Bob Bain, often happens in classrooms) is at the heart of critical skill development, which the College Board eagerly endorses.

Let’s not, on the other hand, overstate the problem. Jonathan Burack sees it as the “relentless drive” on the part of world history educators “to be ‘inclusive’ of everyone and every cultural ‘identity’.” In several decades of teaching the subject, I never met any teachers who thought their charge was “coverage of everything.” And I’m well aware that many critics of globe-encircling history, if not Jonathan, have deployed this particular red herring time and time again to dismiss the entire endeavor to teach introductory history on the global scale.

Jonathan is of course right in questioning the AHA for implying, without intending to do it, that colonialism and colonization did not exist before 1450. But I wish we could stop sizing up and comparing different parts of the world in terms of their relative criminality and benevolence, as if inanimate cultural and social abstractions like “the West” or “Asia” were capable of committing any act whatsoever.

I agree with Ross Dunn. I absolutely support keeping the world history course and changing it as he suggests. I did not mention, as he does, putting questions at the heart of the course, but I should have. Of late, I've been working on a series based on the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies. It's concept of disciplinary concepts and compelling and supporting questions is easily the best basis for constructing history lessons I have ever used. I suggest the College Board look at it for ideas on this aspect of the problem.