AP US History exam falls victim to political fight

Aidan Backus, Online Editor

When half a million students sat down across the country earlier this month to take the AP US History exam, they thought they were just taking an exam.  However, they were on the front lines of a political battle that flared up in 2014 when the College Board released its new AP US History framework.

Across the country, US History is the second-most popular AP exam, after English Language and Composition, taken by over 400,000 students.  Therefore, the College Board, which draws up AP curricula and administers AP exams, viewed it necessary to ensure that the exam tests students’ historical thinking skills.  To this end, they revamped the course for the 2014-15 school year, placing more emphasis on historical trends than individual events.  In addition, all questions on the exam except one free-response question are stimulus-based, meaning that they require the student to analyze historical evidence in their answer.

At the Republican National Convention, lawmakers drew up a resolution that condemned the framework, arguing that it depicts a “radically revisionist view” of America that “differs radically from almost all state history standards,” depicting the oppression of minorities but not their liberation, ignoring the feats of the U.S. military, and misinterpreting the events of the Cold War.

“The new Advanced Placement U.S. History exam focuses on oppression, group identity, and Reagan the warmonger,” wrote conservative historian Lynne Cheney in the “Wall Street Journal,” referring to released test questions that describe conflict between racial groups and accuse Ronald Reagan’s historical speech denouncing the Soviet Union of being “assertive … and bellicose.”

The College Board responded to the pressure by modifying the framework and releasing a sample exam, but the state of Oklahoma didn’t consider the changes sufficient and planned to withhold funding.  Students and teachers protested, and the bill was withdrawn.  However, political factions across the country continue to debate the framework.

Bear Creek APUSH teacher Heather Blount said that the College Board’s framework has a somewhat liberal bias, but is loose enough that schools can teach content as they see fit.

“[The College Board] tends to pick from the lens of gender, ethnicities, and minorities,” Blount said.  “But they aren’t sitting in your classroom; it’s not censorship.  You as the teacher still have the right to go into depth about any examples you wish.”

In other words, while 19 percent of Thematic Learning Objectives, the general concepts meant to be taught in every APUSH class, relate to conflicts between races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and other social groups, it is ultimately the duty of the teacher to emphasize or deemphasize concepts that he or she deems appropriate for the class.

In contrast to the large amount of content about American social history, there is very little mention of military history, which has drawn further ire from Republican politicians.  Blount said that she does not emphasize military history but encourages interested students to investigate further.

“Dig deeper not only into the effects of World War II on minorities,” Blount said, “but also into the extreme patriotism that was necessary for Operation Overlord [D-Day].”

The controversy has grown into a debate about the nature of AP courses in general.  States that have already banned Common Core on principle (claiming that a federal education curriculum violates the rights of the states) argue that AP classes, which are developed by the privately-owned College Board, are also an infringement on states’ rights.

In California, where minorities make up 60 percent of the population and Common Core has ingrained itself in public education, APUSH isn’t going anywhere.  This support for the curriculum was reflected by students’ opinions.

“[Students] do not judge America based on things that happened in the past, even if the class is biased,” junior Shaan Bhalaru said.  “It’s good to know of America’s failures, so that they don’t happen again.”

Though the controversy about APUSH in particular arose only last year, disputes over the “correct” interpretation of American history are nothing new.  In 1980, a political scientist named Howard Zinn published a book called “A People’s History of the United States,” discussing social issues as the common man, not politicians or wealthy business interests, saw them.

The conservative history professor Larry Schweikart retaliated with a book called “A Patriot’s History of the United States,” which claims the United States has an “overwhelmingly positive” effect on the world.  The book is popular, patriotic, and optimistic, but not everyone agrees with its message.

“[Studying US history] helps students to be truly patriotic in that when you love your country you know everything about it — the good and the bad,” Blount said.  “If you want to be romantic about it, it’s like loving a person.”