Closer Readings Commentary

What I Learned Teaching APUSH 2014–2015 Part One

As teachers around the nation begin their summer filled with professional and staff development, school improvement meetings, curriculum planning, as well as anxiously awaiting the results of the year’s standardized tests, one item (for many) tends to take precedent: How did my students fare on the Advanced Placement tests? For those of us who teach Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), the doubts and worries go much deeper than test scores. It is: “Did I teach my students correctly according to the new APUSH redesign?”

“Are we preparing correctly?”

Beginning with the 2014–2015 school year, those who taught APUSH faced a complete course redesign.  From a shift in focal points for content to a new test design and format, teachers around the nation were confronted with myriad questions. Following my Advanced Placement Summer Institute (APSI) in June 2014, I began the long process of a revamping my lesson plans and approach to the course, knowing that despite all the preparation, I would not see whether the fruits of my labor had been valid until I put them into action in August. As summer progressed, I met with several colleagues who were familiar with the redesign. Their concerns and questions mirrored my own, with all of us asking the same question, “Are we preparing correctly?” 

As the year began, my game plan was to handle the course as I had in the past, but to incorporate the new historical thinking skills into the lessons. Specific attention would be paid to the new essay question types (change over time, causation, comparison, and periodization). Seeing that much of the redesign focused on themes (civil rights, organized labor, American imperialism, etc.), some of my colleagues opted out of that traditional chronological approach. But I continued to teach APUSH as a narrative and treat the material chronologically.          

With each passing unit, I was becoming more and more familiar and comfortable with the new format, although I was having doubts and concerns.

Problems emerge: frameworks

First was the call to teach certain United States presidents as “pivotal” (Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, F.D.R, Johnson, and Reagan). The frameworks never state that other presidents cannot be taught; however, these six “transformational ones” are required. Two related problems immediately emerged.

  • The frameworks call for specifics rather than the “big picture”  to be taught, and some in the education field use this not as a guide but as a rigid template (i.e., if it is not in the frameworks, they do not teach it.) As a result, much of the story of history is left out, ultimately harming the kids who will not be able to tell the whole story—whether it is on a unit test or, the end of year, on the APUSH test. 
  • My other concern was with the six “transformational” presidents. Although they are arguably important, many of those omitted actually caused the “transformational” ones to get elected. If a teacher sticks strictly to the guidelines and only teaches these six, students might be left with a poor—if any—understanding of how those six actually emerged. 

Problems emerge: grading rubric

A second concern that arose concerned the test format—specifically the grading rubric. This year, all APUSH teachers were “shooting in the dark.”

In years past, essays had been graded subjectively. APUSH teachers had the luxury of reviewing previous exams, student samples, and rationales in order to gauge their own accuracy as they marked their students’ essays. Teachers looked at how good the essay was as a whole, combined with whether or not the student incorporated a thesis, documents, and outside information. More important, they noted if the student had stayed within the stated question timeframe. Otherwise there were penalties.

This year, one of the biggest issues challenging that method was the new “checklist” format of grading, as students accumulated points for successfully completing specific portions of the essay.

The new grading scale for the Long Essay, or LE (formerly Free Response) was on a 0 to 6 scale. The Document Based Question (DBQ) was on a 0 to 7 scale. With the new rubrics and “checklist approach,” students could receive a maximum of 1 point for a thesis and a maximum of 3 points for document usage (if extended analysis for each document was present).

However, they also had the opportunity to gain 1 point for using two pieces of outside information; 1 point for contextualization (which is staying within the timeframe but linking the question to another issue that is occurring concurrently); and 1 point for synthesis (which is connecting the content of the question to something similar that occurred outside the timeframe, either prior to or following). This in and of itself was an adjustment because now students were rewarded for going outside the timeframe. 

To Be Continued Next Week