The College Board's Modified, Limited Hang Out

The College Board’s recent revision of its standards for the Advanced Placement (AP) history course for the nation’s high school students has been hailed as something of a victory for
conservatives. There is less cause for celebration than might first appear, though. The 2015 standards have not made a real dent in what emerged in 2014 as an ambitious reconceptualization of AP history.

The College Board, a non-profit corporation that controls the standards for AP History and counterpart courses in English, foreign languages, and other subjects (and also the SAT test), has been headed since 2012 by David Coleman, creator of the Common Core K-12 state standards. Coleman promised to align the SATs and the Advanced Placement courses with Common Core. Common Core gave us a national curriculum of sorts in mathematics and English. The AP History standards, and the test that dovetails with them, extend that project to American history.

The old (pre-2014) standards had fit nicely onto five pages and left most of the work of devising a course to the individual high school teachers of AP History across the country. The 2014 “Course and Exam Description,” by contrast, ran to 134 pages, including detailed explanations of how the new examination would work. It viewed America’s past through the lens of contemporary identity politics and resentments, and set forth lengthy and specific guidelines to inculcate that view. It also aligned with a new AP examination, brand new teaching materials, changes in textbooks, and teacher training.

The 2014 standards were met by a firestorm of criticism from, among others, the National Association of Scholars, the journalist Stanley Kurtz, the American Principles Project, and conservative political figures. The College Board responded by deriding its critics as people who favored jingoistic, flag-waving pseudo-history. Various academic historians carried the College Board’s water, and the critics were attacked from such heights as the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and such hedgerows as the History News Network.

It was a low blow. None of us had called for replacing the College Board’s standards with simplistic pieties about the American past. We were taking history seriously and expected the College Board to do so as well.

But after many months of stonewalling, the College Board abruptly changed course and in July 2015 unveiled revised standards. New York University historian Maria Montoya of the College Board’s curriculum development committee denied that the points publicly raised by the critics had motivated the production of new standards for 2015. It was really teacher feedback, she said, that led to streamlining and clarifying the AP History test and “making it much more user-friendly.”

The change in the standards is at this stage merely a symbolic victory for conservatives. The AP examination—which guides what the teachers actually teach—remains aligned to the 2014 standards and thus far there has been no move to change the teaching materials, the textbooks, or the teacher training.

The 2015 AP History standards themselves, however, are different. The 2014 emphasis on social and cultural history is less pronounced. More political and economic history is included in the 2015 test. It delicately erases the most explicit expressions of Progressive bias from 2014. It no longer omits important individuals like James Madison. Also added in 2015 is a mention of the Federalist Papers. In general, the treatment of the American Founding is fuller. World War II is no longer presented through the lens of “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb.”

But the changes the College Board made were less substantial than they first appear, for the 2015 version is still written from within the previous test’s Weltanschauung. For example, the concept of American exceptionalism, ignored in 2014, is mentioned—once—in the 2015 revision. But the mention is no more than a mention. American exceptionalism is presented not as the attempt to create a nation based on self-evident truths about equality and liberty, but as the aggressive pursuit of American power.

The misinterpretation may not be intentional. Having talked with College Board officials, I’m more inclined to see it as honest incomprehension. So attuned to the Progressive worldview are the College Board writers that they falter when trying to take in key ideas that are not a part of that worldview.

The same goes for the maladroit handling, carried over into the 2015 standards, of the role of religion in American life; of the importance of American military history and the way in which the nation’s wars have affected American culture; and of the treatment of Native Americans.

As an anthropologist looking at the 2015 standards and test, I’m struck by the presentation of Native Americans as having “adapted” to their physical environments and then been primarily the victims of European “subjugation.” Various tribes of Native Americans were, of course, themselves masters of subjugation and genocidal wars. The story that the 2015 AP standards tell is still basically that of white people of European extraction oppressing innocent Native Americans and members of other minorities. The new version, like the previous one, tends to reduce the history of ideas and ideals to sidelights on power politics and group interests.

In short, the 2015 AP History standards remain locked in a version of materialism that neglects the importance of religious movements and philosophical principles in the American past and present.

Some conservative commentators have called the College Board’s revision a reasonable political accommodation. I believe critics should not be satisfied with it. We do, though, have to decide whether it is best to continue the effort to persuade the College Board to improve the standards and test, or to begin to develop a viable alternative to them outside the purview of the College Board.

What happens with regard to AP History, a high school course taken by nearly 500,000 students each year, matters greatly. That is not a huge number of students, but those who take it include many of our best, brightest, and most ambitious young people. It is supposed to be a “college level” course and typically substitutes for one.

Also this course directly influences how other high school history courses are taught. The AP History-aligned textbooks are often used in other courses, too. The College Board has already issued AP European History standards that are cut from the same cloth as the ones I have been discussing, and an AP Government course is soon to come.

The United States is negligently backing into national history standards. The battle is by no means won.