[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]
Today I had a chance to review the scores of my students who took the AP US History exam back in May. They did extremely well, which is no surprise given that students must apply to take this course where I work. This means that they are highly motivated and hard workers. This is my second year teaching the course. The biggest change that I made this past year was with the textbook. Last year I used the very popular American Pageant by David Kennedy et. al, while this year I switched to Give Me Liberty by Eric Foner. While the former text is popular the narrative is quite dry and the multiple authors leaves the reader with no unifying theme. Not only is the narrative dry, but littered throughout are poor analogies and metaphors; students enjoy pointing these out in class. As the sole author, Eric Foner is able to weave a coherent story around the question of how the concept of freedom has been understood and the conditions in which it has expanded and contracted throughout American history. His is a progressive story, but realistic throughout. While Foner does provide AP students with the information needed for the exam, he goes beyond this traditional account to introduce students to a host of lesser- known events and individuals that are a staple of the new cultural and social histories. This is clearly history from the bottom-up. Most of my students enjoyed reading Foner and I will stick with it at least for the near future. And finally, despite the warnings from David Horowitz it looks like my students have not turned into rabid communists or represent a threat to national security.
Back to the scores. (Click here if you are not familar with the structure of the exam.)The AP exam is graded on a 1 to 5 scale, 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. The national average is just below a 3, which is obviously pathetic. Out of 21 students there were nine 5’s, six 4’s, four, 3’s, and two 2’s. The class average was 4.048. Obviously I am very pleased with the scores.
That said, I am still a bit ambivalent about the course. While I approve of the emphasis on the analysis of primary documents and analytical writing I have trouble with the amount of information needed for the exam. It is very difficult to slow down in this course and focus on specific questions for any length of time. I also find it difficult to introduce any type of serious research project that involves the necessary time to collect and analyze sources. I would much rather teach an honors-type course where we could read a wider range of primary and secondary sources and focus on specific events in more detail. Do they really need to know the details of the Rush-Bagot Treaty?
The other part that I find troubling is the tendency of students to see the year in terms of one test. I want my students to see their progress in broader terms as taking place over the course of the year rather than as hinging on one day. Studying history is much bigger than preparation for a test. Of course the appreciation of the serious study of history and taking a test are not mutually exclusive, but our societal obsession with tests and getting into the right college is difficult to compete with. Just as important is the hope that the student’s college of choice will offer credit for a score of 4 or 5. Over the last few years schools have reverted to accepting only 5’s for college credit. All of this makes it difficult to impress upon students the intrinsic value of the course. More importantly, in a recent study conducted by two professors out of Harvard and the University of Virginia suggests that a high score on the AP Science tests does not predict success in college science courses. Whether this is true for history has yet to be analyzed.
I rarely mention the AP test during the school year. My goal, as in all my other classes, is to teach my students to think critically about the past and guide them as much as possible through the difficult questions. Hopefully they come out the other end with a strong grasp of both the content of American history and the analytical skills necessary to better interpret it. And if they do well on the AP test, well, that is icing on the cake.