Closer Readings Commentary

What I Learned Teaching APUSH 2014-2015 Part Two

Part Two

 Last week I discussed my experiences retooling the APUSH course to meet the new mandates set by the College Board. This week, I’ll talk about my experience as a table leader at the APUSH reading.

The new reality of scoring APUSH essays

The new APUSH rules have also changed the scoring of the exam essay in terms of its quality. This year, students could actually receive an upper level of scores (5–7 out of 7 for DBQ) for assembling a preponderance of checklist items rather than for composing a well-written essay.

As I assigned and graded essays throughout the school year, I continually questioned my approach to teaching students composition. Students were writing mediocre essays yet were receiving upper-level points using the “checklist” approach. My concerns carried over to this year’s APUSH grading in Louisville, Kentucky. I frequently heard readers at my table question the scores when the essay was not that well written. Fellow table leaders and other readers were experiencing similar incidents. 

In spite of my reservations, I believe the test itself is more student friendly. As the school year progressed I found my students adapted well to the new format and rubric. They now know (at least with the DBQ and LE) that approaching an essay with a formula will give them a better chance of obtaining higher scores. (However, that point also depends on the teacher spending time teaching the whole story and not just what the frameworks say.)

Multiple choice, short answer: the good and the bad

As for the other sections of the test, I found the new multiple choice format to work well (especially when I began to focus more on primary documents as the year progressed). Using primary sources, students were able to understand the views of individuals in a certain timeframe better and make a connection to other events occurring at the same time. They also found the new multiple choice section easier to navigate than the earlier traditional multiple choice format because the questions are now packaged together in groups connected to a common document, graph, or picture. 

The only unknown variable was the new Short Answer Question, which left many questioning their approach to this exam section. We, as APUSH teachers, could only speculate what these questions could look like. The lack of clarity continued at the Louisville reading where Short Answer Question readers were placed apart from and scheduled differently than LE and DBQ readers. Although communication did occur after hours, the grading materials and examples were not released until the last day of the read, so that our understanding of their tasks was limited. 

As for the taking a thematic or chronological approach to the course, I am still undecided. I can see how teaching using the “theme” method could be useful. But I say that with reservations. I fear that teaching thematically—jumping over a timeframe (although I am still showing change over time or cause and effect)—could appear choppy or disjointed and for the students could be confusing. During my review period prior to the test, I utilized the theme method and it worked really well. Students were able to connect people and events together and show either how they changed over time or what caused said events to occur. 

As the summer progresses and score are released, we teachers will begin to mull over the released data.  I, for one, begin the long, arduous task of adjusting methods and techniques to improve my student scores from this past year. As teachers, we are never (nor should we be) satisfied with our students’ scores. However, the year after a new test, the task seems a bit more strenuous. Students performing below where a teacher believes they should leave many educators questioning what to change, especially now there is a possibility that both the DBQ and LE rubrics will be revised and adjusted for next year. That decision will be ultimately up to College Board management.

If any revision or adjustments are made, they will be released sometime in August, prior to the start of school, leaving the APUSH teacher again in a position of uncertainty, of “Am I teaching the course correctly?”