Confessions of an AP History Dropout

Leave it to a high school junior to sum up my own feelings about the AP American history curriculum:

The overriding goal is to crack the AP test. That means taking a lot of practice tests — week after week, filling in those bubbles in class. It means researching past AP exams to predict what will be on the test. It means answering model AP essay questions for homework. It means brute memorization. My classmates ask: Will there be more questions on the American Revolution or World War I? What do we really have to know about mercantilism? Their unspoken question is: If I blow the AP test, can I still get into a good college?

In class, we cannot stray from the AP regimen. A few weeks ago, we were rushing through the 1960s with lightning speed. The Vietnam War is a fog. Somehow the New Frontier turned into the Great Society, which I always confuse with the New Freedom, the New Nationalism and the New Federalism. And what does CORE stand for?

Today is my last day with my AP students before tomorrow’s test.  I hope they do well on it, but I have to admit to feeling ambivalent about the "big day."  The level of tension among many of my students has gradually increased over the past few weeks and it has become much more difficult to engage in serious dialog.  They’ve entered the "just the facts please" mode which leaves little room for the bigger questions and debates.  What I dread most of all is that my students will evaluate their progress in this course based on their AP score which usually arrives in July.  I also get to see the grades, but to be completely honest I don’t place much stock in them.  The final grade that I give each student is based on a much richer body of information that the AP Test cannot measure.  I don’t feel much excitement about having come to the end of the year; what I find myself contemplating is whether all the work put into the year has been nothing more than preparation for a standardized test created by people who have no idea what went on in my class. 

On a more personal level, I thoroughly dislike the way the course ends.  Most of my students are taking other AP courses, which means that during the week of exams I never have a full class.  There is little opportunity to bring the class to a close with final thoughts or to introduce some kind of lesson that allows my students to think about the year as a whole.  Unlike other schools we do not meet as a class after the AP Test.  I think this is unfortunate as I have grown quite attached to my students.

I recently completed work on a committee here at school set up to evaluate our AP program.  We had some very interesting discussions and our final report will hopefully lead to some changes.  I look forward to the day when I can add my name to the growing list of AP dropouts.

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6 comments… add one
  • Tim Lacy May 9, 2008 @ 13:47

    Kevin: Thanks for the post. It’s giving me food for thought as I warily approach my AP grading assignment this summer. I never took an AP history course (because my h.s. didn’t offer one), but I’m looking forward to learning about the nuts and bolts—and failings and irritations. – TL

  • Kevin Levin May 9, 2008 @ 10:15

    John, — Thanks for taking the time to write. I agree wholeheartedly that the analytical essays/DBQ aid students in developing their critical thinking and writing skills. My overall problem is the lack of control over the curriculum. I am pleased to hear that your instructor was able to spend more time on specific events and found the time to assign two research papers. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out how to include such an assignment as part of the course. In other words, the course that I envision has research at its core rather than something that sits on the fringes of the curriculum. Thanks again.

  • John May 9, 2008 @ 2:51

    Hi Kevin,

    When I took AP history 30 years ago there was, as you say,a lot of history to cover; but my teacher managed to put the emphasis on depth rather than breadth. Our tests were of the essay variety, and we were required to submit two well researched and well written papers: one midway through the semester and the second near the end.

    I loved the class. I aced it. Although I didn’t have to I took the AP test and earned 4 hours of college credit. And it did give me a leg up in the critical thinking department when I went to college.

    I don’t know the course requirements where you teach, but those essay tests and those term papers proved to be a tremendous help to me on the AP test for college credit.

  • Kevin Levin May 8, 2008 @ 21:03

    Q,– The committee I worked with did look into the IB program so I am well aware of the curriculum. In the end, however, I want complete control over creating an advanced course in US History.

    Lisa, — I agree with your overall comment re: the advantages that the AP program gives students. The analytical skills learned are invaluable for college as they can be applied to just about any course. Any curriculum that I could develop for an advanced course would be steeped in the analysis of primary and secondary sources, which as you know is an important component in the AP program. In the end, however, I am looking to developing my own advanced curriculum that could offer students far more than the AP. Most importantly, I would integrate research throughout the year which is difficult given the time constraints and the heavy emphasis on breadth rather than depth.

  • Lisa May 8, 2008 @ 16:46

    Hi Kevin,

    Are your students required to take the test? We could take it if we wanted but weren’t required to. Therefore, the AP test wasn’t the focus of the class, although getting a good grade on the test was an objective, it just wasn’t always looming over our heads.

    Looking back, my AP classes were the ones I learned the most from and the most helpful of all my high school classes. They definitely gave me an advantage over the other students in college. I give my AP teachers quite a bit of credit for my writing abilities. They taught me it was okay to think and question things, instead of just digesting facts. My AP history teacher was one of the best I’ve ever had (state history teacher of the year several years from several organizations), one who had quite a life before he began teaching, and I like to think that was the whole point of his class.

  • Q May 8, 2008 @ 13:29

    Another reason why I am so glad I went to an IB school. The curriculum and tests are far superior. The powers that be would do well to take heed.

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