Prior to moving to the UK I taught high school history for seven years. Six of those year I taught AP US History, which was my favorite course when I was in high school and one of the reasons I chose to become a history teacher! I was even fortunate enough to attend the AP US History Reading in Louisville, KY for three years to help score students essays for the College Board (the organization that administers the AP exam).
Last week hundreds of thousands of (mostly) 17 year olds sat for 3 hour exam that they have spent the entire school year preparing for; and for many of them it was only one of many exams in a 14 day period, also competing with athletic activities, prom, and after school jobs. In less than two weeks hundreds of AP high school teachers and college professors will descend on Louisville again to score their essays.
The AP US History exam is made up of 80 multiple choice questions (in 55 minutes), a Document Based Question (in 60 minutes – 15 minutes reading the documents & 45 minutes writing), and two essays (in 70 minutes); though this format is likely to change next school year (based on what I was told by the College Board back when I still taught).
For the majority of students (there are multiple versions of the test for students overseas and those who test on a different date for approved reasons) the Document Based Question (DBQ) was “How and why did the goals of United States foreign policy change from the end of the first World War (1918) to the end of the Korean War (1953)?” [Click here for the exam questions with documents from the College Board.]
As a former AP teacher, I thought the question was fair and the documents provided fairly clear and lent themselves well for students to bring in outside information (facts that support the student’s argument that aren’t directly included in the documents). It is from the 20th century; so students will have studied that topic fairly recently, and it is generally a topic of high interest to students.
I predict that the arc of most students’ essays will follow along the lines of “While the US was disillusioned with international affairs following WWI (which is an oversimplification, but one the College Board will likely accept given that students are writing a first draft in 45 minutes); the lessons of WWII taught the government that aggression needs to be checked. Focusing on the spread of communism following WWII.” (I always told my students to underline their thesis statements; because if it isn’t clear to you it won’t be to the reader.)
As a former AP reader, I can anticipate where students’ essays may fall short. There will probably be the certain stress related mistakes mislabeling the Korean War with the War in Vietnam, but you still understand their argument. But then there will also be the blank essays, the ones filled with doodles, and the inevitable rant against how awful the teacher is.
The written portion of the exam also requires student to write two Free Response Questions, or FRQs, (think 5 paragraph style essays). There are two sections (broken up by pre & post civil war topics) and students are given a choice of two essays within each section; allowing students to pick their strengths.
For Part B the options were:
2. Choose TWO of the following and analyze their impact on colonial North American
development between 1620 and 1776.
The First Great Awakening
3. Compare and contrast the Jacksonian Democratic Party and the Whig Party of the
1830s and 1840s. Focus on TWO of the following.
The role of the federal government in the economy
The main room at the AP reading is partitioned by curtains into four sections, one for each of the FRQs. Often the size of the partitions is not equal, when one essay proves to be more popular with students than another. I bet that most students will chose #2 to write about, it deals with the origins of the country heavily stressed by teachers. Students never remember that a Whig Party ever existed in America. And all they seem to remember about Andrew Jackson was that he was a man of the people, killed a bunch of Native Americans, was a terrible speller, and liked to duel.
For Part C the options were:
4. To what extent were the goals of Reconstruction (1865–1877) regarding
African Americans achieved by 1900 ?
5. Explain the social, economic, and foreign policy goals of New Right conservatives
from the 1960s to the 1980s and assess the degree to which the Reagan administration
succeeded in implementing these goals in the 1980s.
Again, I think #4 will be the more popular choice. There is a lot of emphasis placed on social history in classrooms and questions on topics relating to slavery are popular with students. Now, popularity doesn’t always lead to good essays. My experience has been that these type of questions can lead to a-historical arguments; or, essays were students describe the treatment of African Americans as poor, but with little factual evidence to place their argument during Reconstruction instead of 1820s or 1950s.
While I think that #5 will be the less popular choice, it has the potential yield better essays. Question #5 is what I would lovingly define as a ‘political nerd’ question. The students who chose this topic are likely to know a thing or two.
Looking through this year’s exam question has made me nostalgic for the classroom. And I can feel the anxiousness that students and teachers will feel from now until mid-July when the scores are available. Also for the snack room at the AP reading!