Lawmakers in Oklahoma have ignited a storm of controversy by advancing a bill that would cut off funding for Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, and instead replace them with an alternative college-level course.
Should the bill pass, Oklahoma may do far more than alter its high school course line-up: It could fragment college-level high school classes much in the way that conservatives are trying to break apart the shared national standards of Common Core.
Conservatives are upset by what they see as an effort by the College Board (the non-profit company that writes AP tests) to make APUSH more centrally controlled and more ideological. Old APUSH tests included a lengthy multiple choice section focused on making sure test-takers know the factual nuts and bolts of American history, with questions asking why the Battle of Antietam was important or what powers the U.S. government held under the Articles of Confederation.
The new APUSH test rolling out this spring is another matter. Sample practice questions signal a very different approach, with less focus on specific knowledge and more on the broader trends of American history. These broader trends frequently involve matters such as racism, feminism, immigration and environmentalism, to an extent that critics say could turn APUSH into a progressive morality play.
The College Board is also exerting more control over what topics APUSH teachers are expected to cover. For years, the College Board’s course outline for APUSH teachers was a scant five pages long, containing a list of core concepts (from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Treaty of Versailles) that should be taught to be ready for the end-of-year exam.
For 2015, however, the outline has ballooned to several dozen pages long, listing virtually everything teachers could be expected to teach. This far longer outline fuels opponents’ arguments that the College Board is trying to micromanage how history is taught, while trampling over the standards of individual states.
The College Board has defended its changes, saying its approach is unbiased, allows for studying key concepts in greater depth and requires students to read more primary sources. However, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and one of the most vocal critics of the new APUSH test, says it’s imposing a political slant on American history.
“The emphasis is on the oppression of various minority groups, the emphasis is on identity in terms of race, gender, ethnicity,” Kurtz told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The common thread of democratic principles or constitutional principals, those things are being deemphasized.”
Kurtz said that seeking an alternative test, as Oklahoma may do, is hardly whitewashing America’s history.
“An alternative would absolutely have to give substantial treatment to slavery, to the treatment of American Indians, to the civil rights movement,” Kurtz said. However, it would also invite a greater treatment of America’s democratic traditions and concepts such as American exceptionalism.
Kurtz also argued that, regardless of APUSH’s content, the country should have more than one option when it comes to college-level history tests.
“[Currently] the government is propping up a single testing company that feels it is no longer accountable,” he said. “My hope is, the movement will spread across the country.”
Jamie Gass, the director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform, told TheDCNF that Oklahoma’s possible shift should be seen as the first step towards a major decentralization of college-level exams.
“This has opened up a conversation of what it is testing should look like in this country,” Gass said. “For decades, we had the SAT, the ACT, AP testing, and the reality is, these tests have not improved student achievement in this country.”
Instead, Gass said, states should embrace the opportunity to create their own college-level tests, rather than outsourcing it to a national third party he describes as utterly unaccountable.
“In some states…something like 90 percent of students go to college within the state,” he said. “If they decide they want to develop their own unique college entrance exam, more power to them. From a policy standpoint I think it would be healthy.”
That just might happen. In addition to Oklahoma, lawmakers in Georgia are also considering a resolution that calls for APUSH to be changed by next year, with the threat of Georgia creating its own APUSH alternative if the demand isn’t met.
Gass and Kurtz’s opposition to a single national history test shows the close ties between APUSH criticism and the broader movement against Common Core, which Oklahoma has already repealed. Gass noted that David Coleman, the current College Board president, also played a big role with the creation of the Core. Coleman’s more centralized APUSH, he said, shows the same centralizing impulses he sees in Common Core, and that shared impulse is why both need to be weakened.
“The architects of the Common Core have always envisioned a much more unified national testing regimen, whether its the two testing consortia funded by the federal government, or whether its the ACT, SAT, and AP,” said Gass. “I don’t think it’s an accident Coleman ended up head of the College Board.”
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