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Historical Organizations React to the AP U.S. History Debate

In recent months, the newly developed framework for the Advanced Placement (AP) in U.S. History exam issued by the College Board has sparked an unexpected controversy. The AP U.S. History exam is meant to provide high school students who have already displayed an advanced level of knowledge in the subject the opportunity to earn college credit at many institutions.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) recently adopted a resolution criticizing the revised versions of the framework and exam, and went so far as to demand a congressional investigation into its development. In addition, conservative organizations have joined the chorus and are engaging in grass roots opposition to the AP framework and exam at the state and local levels. State boards of education are being asked to delay implementation of the exam or scrap it altogether.

The opponents maintain that the teaching of "traditional" American history—e.g., the contributions of the Founding Fathers, and the theme of American exceptionalism—are being deemphasized in the framework in favor of so-called "revisionist history" that paints America in a negative light, rather than emphasizing the iconic "City Upon a Hill" of John Winthrop.

Two conservative groups, American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America, are leading the fight against the AP history exam and framework. They recently sent a letter to the College Board asking that implementation of the revisions be postponed. The letter states, "The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that 'was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority."' They are also trying to tie the framework to the increasingly unpopular Common Core standards in an effort to ensure its demise.

The College Board responded to the criticism by explaining that the framework had been revised in response to demands from educators at the local level wanting greater flexibility in designing their AP courses. The College Board even went so far as to release the fall 2014 practice exam (http://goo.gl/NQW3yb) to allow opponents to see that their criticisms are not borne out by the actual test.

Recently, the National Coalition for History sent a letter to the boards of education in eight states (Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, and Nevada) supporting the efforts of the College Board in trying to make the AP History framework and exam more flexible and reflect developments in scholarship.

The Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, and the AHA have also issued separate statements on the issue. The NCH's statement is as follows:
NCH Statement on AP US History Exam

The National Coalition for History (NCH) is a consortium of over 55 organizations that advocates on federal legislative and regulatory issues. The coalition is made up of diverse groups representing historians, archivists, researchers, teachers, students, political scientists, museum professionals, genealogists, and other stakeholders. Several of NCH's members are national groups with missions centered solely on history education. NCH is writing to express our concerns over the current controversy surrounding the issuance of the new framework for the Advanced Placement (AP) in U.S. History exam issued by the College Board.

Critics of the new framework contend that its authors are engaging in "revisionist history" that leaves out the contributions of major historical figures and paints America in a negative light. Disagreement over the interpretation of history is inevitable and healthy. History is, by its very nature, evolving. Thanks to the energetic work of historians exploring archives and engaging in a process of discovery, we are constantly enriching our understanding of the past and our recognition of the significance of our predecessors. New sources of information sharpen our knowledge of the conditions our founding fathers and every succeeding generation faced and the decisions they made. History textbooks read by previous generations of students have been rendered nearly obsolete by new questions demanding answers and fresh knowledge with which to answer them.

While different takes on the past may engender honest disagreement and debate, we can all agree about the need for a responsible process to establish and implement educational goals. The AP History framework was developed over a 7-year period by professionals of good faith and goodwill in the field and peer reviewed by a diverse group of four hundred high school AP history teachers and fifty-three college professors with expertise in U.S. history. It is a framework that offers expert guidance while providing individual teachers with flexibility to adapt their AP courses to state standards and local concerns.

There is ample room for thus: of all political persuasions and educational philosophies to work together in a collaborative spirit to provide the next generation of Americans with a first-rate education in the humanities and social sciences, especially in American history. In 2013, at the behest of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences issued a report on "the importance of the humanities and social sciences to the future of our nation." The report underscored how our nation's founders knew that a "government bound by law and rooted in the consent of the governed—depends on citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others."

We are all in favor of an educational system that yields such an informed citizenry capable of respecting a wide range of perspectives on the past. Careful reading of the standards suggests that much of the material that critics fear has been excluded has in fact been incorporated into the AP History Framework. There is also ample opportunity for professional educators to include material that is of particular concern in their states and communities. The prudent integration of critical thinking skills with state-of-the art historical knowledge in the framework nurtures in our students a lively, thoughtful dialogue with the past.

As Americans and as educators, we share the goal of ensuring that high school students receive the well-rounded education that will make them ready for "college, career, and citizenship" upon graduation. Rather than a rejection of tradition, the new AP framework builds on our profession's long-standing commitment to encourage and cultivate in students the ability to contextualize information and to create and analyze arguments based on evidence. These critical skills in historical thinking are valuable tools that students will apply to their subjects—and to their lives. Employers often declare that these are some of the essential skills they seek when appraising job candidates. The AP revisions aim at the enhancement of precisely those skills.

The National Coalition for History supports the College Board's new framework. While no document is perfect, the current guidelines are an important step forward in helping teachers to prepare future citizens for a twenty-first-century global economy.

Read the OAH Statement on the AP Test


Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. Sign up to receive the National Coalition for History (NCH) Washington Update, a weekly electronic newsletter that provides information on legislation, hearings, markups, and regulatory issues of concern to historians, archivists, and other stakeholders.

Posted: October 24, 2014
Tagged: Advocacy