Closer Readings Commentary

What’s happening to the APUSH course and exam? Part One

Waylon Lewallen is an APUSH teacher at Spring Hill High School, Hope, Arkansas.

In 2007, I was appointed as a reader to the annual AP U.S. History Reading in Louisville, Kentucky, and was introduced to the inner workings of Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH). I learned the ins and outs of the APUSH test as well as what was coming in future years. Since 2012, readers have been exposed to the various changes surrounding the test, including the hotly contested redesign. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to serve as a table leader at the Reading (the week-long event wherein AP exams are graded), where I not only had the ability to train readers but be on the inside regarding some of the bigger issues regarding the 2014–15 redesign.

Those of us familiar with APUSH know that the 2014–15 school year is going to be quite interesting and challenging as we grapple with a complete course redesign. There are very few certainties about this redesign. Many are unsure about this upcoming school year in regard to new content; what’s going to be on the test; as well as the test structure itself. This summer, while in attendance at various workshops (including the annual AP Reading, an AP Summer Institute, and an NEH Landmark workshop), I discussed these changes with professional contacts who have diverse concerns, from “how are they changing the content,” to those who ask “what change?” Also, this summer I have heard quite a few stories about what’s “not to be taught” to “what’s omitted” to “what’s being rewritten.”

Primary sources and their analysis drives the test

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. History is history, the most significant people, places, and events have to be included in the story that we tell; and what better way to tell the story than to use primary documents. Yes, the test is changing. Yes, there is an even stronger emphasis on certain aspects (i.e., social history). In the past the APUSH tests have included primary documents, but beginning with the 2014–15 school year, primary documents will drive the test.

The more closely students work with primary documents, the better prepared they will be for the APUSH exam come May. Teaching practices such as Socratic seminars and class debates (I have found that the Talking Points series as well as Opposing Viewpoints in American History provide good exposure to not only major issues but varied viewpoints); and primary source-driven lessons on such sites as EDSITEment, Gilder Lehrman*, and the Stanford History Education Group help students gain valuable insights into the close reading and analysis of primary and secondary source documents that they will need to successfully complete this test. Personally, I have found lessons surrounding “transformational" presidents, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, and their eras most beneficial. Still the question remains, what does the new course look like?

The nine historical thinking skills

First and foremost, the introduction of new historical thinking skills will be the basis for all the test questions. Though specifically being called out now, these should have been utilized in the past. They include:

  • Historical argumentation

Historical thinking involves the ability to define and frame a question about the past and to address that question by constructing an argument. A plausible and persuasive argument requires a clear, comprehensive, and analytical thesis supported by relevant historical evidence—not simply evidence that supports a preferred or preconceived position. Additionally, argumentation involves the capacity to describe, analyze, and evaluate the arguments of others in light of available evidence.

  • Use of historical evidence

Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about the past from diverse sources (written documents, works of art, archaeological artifacts, oral traditions, and other primary sources) with respect to content, authorship, purpose, format, and audience.

  • Historical causation

Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, analyze, and evaluate multiple cause-and-effect relationships in a historical context, distinguishing between the long-term and proximate.

  • Continuity and change

Historical thinking involves the ability to recognize, analyze, and evaluate the dynamics of historical continuity and change over periods of varying lengths, as well as relating these patterns to larger historical processes or themes.

  • Periodization

Historical thinking involves the ability to describe, analyze, evaluate, and construct models of historical periodization that historians use to categorize events into discrete blocks and to identify turning points, recognizing that the choice of specific dates favors one narrative, region, or group over another narrative, region, or group; therefore, changing the periodization can change a historical narrative.

  • Compare and contrast

Historical thinking involves the ability to describe, compare, and evaluate, in various chronological and geographical contexts, multiple historical developments within one society and one or more development across or between different societies.

  • Contextuality

Historical thinking involves the ability to connect historical developments to specific circumstances in time and place and to broader regional, national, or global processes.

  • Interpretation

Historical thinking involves the ability to describe, analyze, evaluate, and create diverse interpretations of the past—as revealed through primary and secondary historical sources—by analyzing evidence, reasoning, contexts, points of view, and frames of reference.

  • Synthesis

Historical thinking involves the ability to arrive at meaningful and persuasive understandings of the past by applying all the other historical thinking skills, by drawing appropriately on ideas from different fields of inquiry or disciplines, and by creatively fusing disparate, relevant, (and perhaps contradictory) evidence from primary sources and secondary works.

Coming next week in Part Two: how to think about the exam and specific changes.