College Board Revises AP US History Guidelines After Controversy


After controversy over the guidelines for the Advanced Placement United States History curriculum, a new, “more-balanced” take on the past was released last week that will go into effect immediately.

Advanced Placement courses allow students to take college-level courses for credit provided they pass a test administered by the College Board, a private nonprofit corporation. The Christian Science Monitor’s Kevin Truong reports that the 2014 history guidelines were not acceptable to political conservatives because of what they felt was an anti-American slant that focused on wrongdoing by the nation and minimized the American people’s achievements.

The most significant backlash came when Colorado’s Jefferson County school board decided to review the details of the course to ensure that it gave a positive view of the achievements of American citizens. As a result, thousands of teachers and students staged a walk-out and stood along streets to protest. Other protests came from history experts, politicians, and the Republican National Committee.

In Texas, Ben Carson, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, quipped that students who took this class would emerge “ready to sign up with ISIS.” However, those on the liberal side may see the revisions made to the guidelines as an example of the College Board giving in to pressure. Jeremy Stern, an independent educational consultant, says this is not the case, but the action was taken to move away from partisanship. He said that history is made up of unpleasant topics and high achievements.

“You can’t just ignore past injustices because you don’t like them,” said Mr. Stern.

He continued that the 2014 version of the course was not balanced because it did not put American injustices into a broader framework. An example he cited was presenting British colonialism without including a discussion of the abuses of European colonialism in general.

Teachers, in some cases, said that at least the 2014 guidelines had a level of context, since for many years teachers have said the course lacked detail. Although some critics have said the 2014 outline excluded some historical figures, Davis Burton, who has taught AP US History for 13 years in Oklahoma, said the 2014 course curriculum was a “triple-jump forward.”

There are changes in the guidelines which have to do with the country’s national identity, says Wyatt Massey of CNN, along with the founding political leaders and documents and the country’s role in ending the Cold War. Other changes reduced the expected learning objectives from 50 to 19 and clarified content so that it would be “less open to misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance.”

Back in 2006, the College Board began to update the guidelines when AP teachers said they did not have enough time to involve students in the major topics. One of the major complaints about the 2014 iteration was that it did not include some important historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. The College Board responded by pointing out that the guidelines were not a rigid curriculum and history teachers would know to add these figures in the corresponding lessons.

Included in this set of guidelines were a stronger focus on US victories in the two World Wars and the sacrifices of the members of the armed forces, as well as recognizing American economic success. Another significant addition is the topic of westward expansion, writes Contessa Brewer of CBS News.

“In the original version, the focus was almost exclusively on the negative impact of western settlement on Native American populations,” said historian Jeremy Stern, who helped The College Board craft the revisions. “Including that is obviously essential, but you also want to talk about the point of view of the settlers themselves.”

Jake Flanagin, writing for Quartz, says US high school students will pay the price of the College Board giving in to its critics. The revised AP guidelines tone down the language of racial tension in the history of the US. An example, as it pertains to Native Americans, reads like this in the 2014 version:

“By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol, and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.”

The 2015 revisions reads:

“The introduction of guns, other weapons, and alcohol stimulated cultural and demographic changes in some Native American societies.”

Flanigan writes sarcastically that the 2016 version will refer to slavery as “involuntary labor”, Native Americans as “pre-Americans”, and the Civil War as a “simple dispute over the true height of Lincoln’s top hat.”