Closer Readings Commentary

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

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

Last week I discussed the changes to the APUSH course and promised a further discussion about changes to the exam.

The AP US History exam is three hours and 15 minutes long and includes both a 100-minute multiple choice/short answer section (Part I) and a 95-minute free response section (Part II). Each section is divided into two parts.

  • Section I
    • Part A: Multiple Choice: 55 questions, 55 minutes, 40% of the total exam score
    • Part B: Short Answer Questions: 4 questions, 45 minutes, 20% of the total exam score
  • Section II
    • Part A: Document Based Question: 1 question, 60 minutes, 25% of the total exam score
    • Part B: Long Essay: 1 question (chosen from a pair), 35 minutes, 15% of the total exam score

Those familiar with APUSH will notice there are some major changes in the format of the test. For starters, there will be a greater emphasis placed on writing than in the past (formerly a 50%/50% split between multiple choice questions and essay; now a 60% writing/40% multiple choice split). A couple more of the obvious changes are fewer multiple choice questions and one less Long Essay (formerly known as the Free Response Question). Throughout each test section there will be a greater emphasis on and usage of primary and secondary source documents and how the historical thinking skills apply to each.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific changes within each section. In regards to the multiple choice section, gone are the days of strictly informational (or knowledge-based) questions, which forced students to memorize facts and dates for later recall. The new focus will be on historical interpretation of historical prompts and their connection to past/future events. Students will find either primary or secondary source prompts (pictures, cartoons, graphs, quotes, historians' perspective, etc.) as the basis for their questions. Each prompt will be followed by 3–5 questions. This stimulus material will reflect the types of evidence that historians use in their research on the past.

Next, students will find something new to APUSH: the Short Answer Question (SAQ) section. Students will be given four questions (both with and without a historical prompt, such as pictures, cartoons, graphs, quotes, etc.). SAQs will directly address one or more of the historical thinking skills for the course. Each question will have three parts (A, B, C). In all there will be twelve questions total for students to answer in the SAQ section of the test. As for grading the SAQs, each response will be valued at one point (on a 12-point grading scale). So in other words, the answer will be either correct or incorrect. Answers are expected to be short for each part, usually no longer than 2–3 sentences.

After a break, students will return to the Document Based Question (DBQ). The DBQ measures a student’s ability to analyze and synthesize historical data and to assess verbal, quantitative, or visual materials as historical evidence by using the new historical thinking skills. As with the long essay, responses to the DBQ will be judged on student’s ability to formulate a thesis and support it with relevant evidence. Though closely resembling DBQs from the past, there are a few obvious changes.

  • Gone are the days of documents being labeled alphabetically. Now students will find the documents listed numerically.
  • There will also be a reduction of documents provided to students—seven documents instead of the traditional nine.
  • In regard to grading, the DBQ will now be graded on a seven-point scale. Students will get one point for having a thesis. They must provide support for their argument as well as providing application for the targeted historical thinking skill(s).
  • Students must show one of the following skills for at least six of the seven documents: Historical Context; Intended Audience and/or Purpose or Point of View (HIPP) in order to receive 3 points.
  • Students must use Outside Information to help support their argument to receive 1 point on the DBQ.
  • Students must also show Contextualization in their writing by connecting to events prior to and after the time period for an additional point.
  • They must use one of the four following skills to receive their Synthesis point: Appropriately extends or modifies the stated thesis or argument; Recognizes and effectively accounts for disparate, sometimes contradictory evidence from primary sources and/or secondary works in crafting a coherent argument; Appropriately connects the topic of the question to other historical periods, geographical areas, contexts, or circumstances; or Draws on appropriate ideas and methods from different fields of inquiry or disciplines in support of the argument.

At the end of the test, students will write the Long Essay (formerly known as the Free Response Question, FRQ). The purpose of the LE is to measure the use of historical thinking skills to explain and analyze significant issues in U.S. history as defined by the thematic learning objectives. In the past, there were four FRQs and students selected two on which to write on. Now, students are provided with two LEs, and must choose one. Again, there is a change in the grading scale. A new 0–6 scale will replace the 0–9 scale; and as with the DBQ, students must include a thesis; address the historical thinking skill(s) and synthesize to obtain credit for their essay.

Regardless of where you stand on the redesign—love it, hate it, or are not sure—a few things are for certain. First, primary source documents will be vital to teaching this year and be central to students' understanding of how to tackle the test. The more students are exposed to and use primary and secondary source documents, the better prepared they should be for this exam. Second, the redesign should challenge both the teacher's and the students' understand of the craft of history and how it relates to past/future events. And last, but not least, 2014–15 should be an interesting year.