2015 AP US History Exam Debrief

My 2014 AP US History Exam Debrief has gotten a lot of traction on the site.  Now, it could not even possibly be considered to have gone viral in the grand scheme of the internet; but excluding the homepage (which post the 5 most recent articles in full) that post got the most hits in 2014, and currently has the most hits for 2015.  So clearly some people found it the most interesting thing I had to say! (I think many of them are high schoolers looking for thesis statements to use in their essays) Therefore, I figured I’d follow up this year with a post for the 2015 exam that hundreds of thousands sat for last week.  However, this year the AP US History curriculum and exam format went through VERY significant changes, so I want to up front about a few things:

  1. I have not taught AP US History for the past two years.
  2. I have not been trained by the College Board (or anyone else for that matter) on the new curriculum or exam.
  3. I have not spent a large amount of time combing through the new curriculum and exam information individually.  (If you’ve browsed the blog you’ll see there is a lot of eating and traveling to be done.)

What you’ll find the paragraphs below is: my reaction to the exam questions asked this year, from a person reasonably knowledgeable in the content; my suggestions for thesis statements/topic sentences; and potential pitfalls students may have fallen into based on my experience as a teacher.  If you are a parent of a student who sat for the exam don’t worry about the pitfalls too much.  Your student’s teacher knows about them too and was prepping them all school year on how to avoid them.

New Curriculum Framework

You can read the new curriculum framework, which address the format of the exam and includes sample questions here.  Now, with the curriculum redesign the folks at the College Board haven’t changed American History; you need a Delorean for that!  But they have tried to be more explicit in the content that needs to be taught to students for a course that was one described to me at a training as a mile high and an mile deep. The new framework has focused historical instruction around four ‘Historical Skills’ and seven ‘Learning Objectives’ (or what I would call themes). AP US Skills & Objectives In order to eliminate some of the uncertainty about what topics could appear on the exam, the detailed concept outline highlights examples that teachers must teach and are fair game for exam questions, and examples where teachers can choose a topic to illustrate a concept, and therefore any exam question asked will likely be open ended allowing students to demonstrate what they know about the concept, rather than what they know about that event. AP US flexibility The curriculum has also expanded the periodization (historical time frame ) of the course to include more pre-Colombian (North America prior to Columbus) and contemporary America. AP US Periodization All these curriculum changes I think will serve a new AP teacher well, even if it is a lot to wrap your head around (balancing the skills & objectives with the topics and how long to spend).  But it will probably make the teacher whose been teaching the course for decades, and just plods through the textbook focusing on what they like frustrated (especially since some of those teachers are happy if they get up to Nixon prior to the exam).  What I do wish the College Board included when they allocated ‘Instructional Time’ (in the chart above), was time for review & prep for the exam.  Because while there is a whole industry built up around the preparing for the exam outside of class; it just isn’t always feasible or appropriate for every student due to a variety of factors, such as: learning style, time commitments, and finances.

New Exam

The bigger shift for teachers came in how the College Board assesses students on the exam.  The old AP exam consisted of: a multiple choice section (80 questions), a document based essay question (DBQ), and two traditional essays of which students get a choice of topics.  The new exam consists of: a multiple choice section (30 questions all of which a connected to some sort of prompt – a map, quotation, statistical chart, etc), four short answer questions, a DBQ essay, and one traditional essay and students still get a pick of questions.  However the rubrics for how the essays will be scored are different.

Though the College Board more than halved the number of multiple choice questions students answer and switched from 5 possible correct answers to 4; the demand on students may have increased since students will need to analyze an excerpt and then answer questions.  This particular format will stress students critical reading skills in a timed format, and require a significant amount of time and preparation my AP teachers who will need to write new test questions for their in-class assessments.

This year’s short answer questions have been released by the College Board and can be found here.  Student samples probably won’t be available until August when schools start to resume across the country.  When I taught, the addition of a short answer section was one of the proposed changes that I looked forward too as I often felt that my students were better and expressing themselves in writing than at immediate fact & analysis recall.

While I have not been trained on the new format I can tell from the exam instructions that students are limited in the amount they can write, and the Curriculum Framework specifically states that students, while must write in complete sentences, are not expected to include thesis statements or write essays.  I do wish the Curriculum Framework included a rubric for the short answer questions.

Looking at this year’s short answer questions I think they were very fair.  While students were required to answer specific prompts (not given a choice of prompts), the prompts were written so that students could demonstrate what they know about a topic, with multiple examples available to form correct answers.  Using #3 as an example; students were not asked about the significance of Shay’s Rebellion, but Shay’s Rebellion would be an appropriate example for part C (but so would the North’s gradual abolition of slavery).

I think the biggest challenge to students in the short answer section is time.  Students need to think of and analyze historical examples that fit the prompt at a rate of about 12 minutes per question.  My experience with high school students writing is that students often struggle to take a firm position, out of fear of being wrong.  With this exam students need to except that there are multiple correct answers and once they settle on one they shouldn’t look back.

As I read through the short answers prompts I was naturally brainstorming responses; I also noticed that while the short answer prompts are not essay questions, the content that students produce is very similar to an essay brainstorm for a broad (unasked) essay question.

The only part of short answer section that made me cringe a little bit was #2, about the interplay of environmental preservation v. conservation during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.  It is a very fair question, it is just that when I got to that topic it was usually January, right before the end of the semester and I was worried about pacing (we had usually had a few snow days by then).  So I often told the students to make sure they read that section carefully on their own and read The Lorax by Dr Seuss in class.

The general spirit of the DBQ has remained the same but the rubric, found in an appendix in the Curriculum Framework has changed.  It is now much more of a specific checklist for students, rather than a holistic approach to how good of an essay students’ wrote.  There is even greater specificity in the directions left for students:

AP DBQ directions


The College Board has no provided specific guidance about how many documents students should use.  Previous it was just ‘a substantial number’ (I told students half plus two of the total documents).  However, using all (or all bust one) isn’t necessarily more work since they have reduced the total number of documents from around 10 to six.

The instructions also provide great specificity about the type of analysis students should include, which in general I think will help focus their writing.  I’m interested to see actual student samples, to see if student analysis focuses on one theme per document or if the document analyses include all the suggestions from the College Board.

As for the subject of the DBQ, I think it is a prime example of the College Board holding teachers accountable to the new curriculum.  The prompt was: Explain the reasons why a new conservatism rose to prominence in the United States between 1960 and 1989.  While the old exam always covered material through the 1980s and into the 1990s, there was rarely an essay question from that time period; and if there was it was in the free response section where students could choose not to write on a different topic.  Under the old curriculum many teachers got by (with decent scores) only covering up to the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.  Now the College Board is looking to see that teachers are getting to the present day in their courses.

As for a thesis statement appropriate for the prompt?  I would go with: Between 1960 and 1989 conservative sentiment increased throughout the United States as a result of a backlash to the radicalization of social movements in the 1960s & 1970s, coupled with a weakening economy and international position.

On the new exam, students only write one ‘traditional’ (5 paragraph) essay, instead of two; though students still get a choice about the topic.  This year the college board balanced the two options nicely.  Both options were about a war (Seven Years/French & Indian v. Mexican-American) an focused on the war’s role as a turning point in American History.  By keeping the options very similar it is likely that an even number of students across the country will choose each essay.

For question #2 I would go with the following thesis statement: The French & Indian War ended Britains policy of Salutary Neglect; and while for most people living in British North America their daily lives were relatively unchanged, for an influential number of people the end of Salutary Neglect altered their perception of the British Empire, their role in it, and their desire to stay in it.

For question #3 a good working thesis would be: While the Mexican-American War did not start the US’ debate over slavery, just as the war was a violent conflict, so became the political and social conflict over slavery in it’s aftermath.

As I said at the beginning of this post (I know that seems like a while ago), I found this year’s AP US History exam to be very fair, yet very reflective of the changes made to the curriculum.  It least to this (now) outsider 🙂

About Leslie@myfoodhistorytravelblog

Hey! I'm an American living in the UK with a passion for food, history, and travel. You can follow my experiences at myfoodhistorytravelblog.com (not a creative title - but you know what you'll be getting).
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