Embracing the Challenge of the New AP US History Exam

Brenda Santos, September 2014

Over the 10 years I’ve spent teaching and coaching teachers of advanced-placement US history, the number one critique I’ve heard of the exam is that it encourages the teaching and learning of a massive number of facts and deprioritizes deep analytical thinking—the stuff of the Common Core, “college readiness” à la David Conley, and actual historical work. The new AP US history exam is a significant departure from the old exam, and its chief strength is the reversal of instructional priorities that it demands. The exam is a product of years of collaboration, and while it will undoubtedly have its own critics, I expect that that old complaint will lose its resonance as teachers rethink their instruction and redesign their courses around the new exam’s focus on key concepts, themes, and historical thinking skills. Indeed, the exam poses a challenge, but it is one I urge teachers to embrace.

The new exam, which the College Board will administer for the first time in May 2015, will require students to do much more than memorize facts—they will have to interpret primary source documents, analyze historical arguments, evaluate evidence, and read maps and data, even in the (much shorter) multiple-choice section. Indeed, every multiple-choice question now relates to a piece of text, an artifact, a map, or data presented to the student on the exam. The exam also includes more free-response items, including four new short-answer questions. It still includes a document-based essay, but there is now only one long essay (the old exam had two). The changes in the structure of the exam reflect the College Board’s increased prioritization of demonstrated college readiness on the part of AP students.

While there are substantial changes to the structure of the exam, the most important—and consequential—change to the framework (especially to the teacher of AP US history, or APUSH) lies in the organization of the course into three different, intertwined sets of learning objectives: themes, key concepts, and historical thinking skills.

That means it is virtually impossible to teach a traditional chapter-by-chapter narrative of US history using this framework; the new exam calls for a more deliberate, robust examination of parallel themes as they develop over time, place, and populations, as well as more active instruction in the skills that empower students to do the historical work necessary to make meaning. The beauty of this new APUSH framework is its synergy with emerging research on building deep, lasting understanding in students and how it sets them up to apply this understanding with agility. Teachers who embrace the new framework will build what David Conley calls “conditional” and “conceptual” knowledge in students to achieve “deeper learning,” while simultaneously building the learning skills needed for college and career readiness.1

A comparison of assessment items from the old and new exams (see sidebar) illustrates the role that the new focus on historical thinking skills plays in the development of the new test and how these skills will fundamentally alter teacher mind-sets, planning, and instruction. The first two items come from the 2006 exam—the old test.2

Both items from the 2006 test assess students’ ability to sort “outside information” terms into broad categories—which likely mirror their textbook units. APUSH teachers have long known that if their students struggle with these questions, they need to hit the flash cards. And those flash cards needn’t be very detailed; if a student can remember that Dorothea Dix championed the asylum movement and that the Pure Food and Drug Act was a Progressive law, then he or she will score points. Compare those questions to the multiple-choice items on the Progressive Era from the sample exam items in the new framework as released by the College Board in 2012 (see sidebar), and a very different set of criteria for student success emerges.3

In the new test, both items require students to use evidence from the text. The College Board also tagged the first item with the historical thinking skill “comparison” and the second with “causation.” In addition, I would argue that both items require students to have an understanding of historiography and an ability to place historical discourse in context. The old test required neither of these skills. I took part in this comparison during an early training on the new APUSH exam in my school district. The starkness of the contrast between these two sets of Progressive Era items drove home the significance of the change with regard to historical thinking skills and rallied us around a shared sense of urgency. We all wanted to take our students from the “what” and “how” to the deeper thinking that these new items require.

The new APUSH framework includes nine historical thinking skills divided into four categories. The framework explains that in including the “ways historians investigate and reason,” the College Board aims to “apprentice students to the practice of history.” The historical thinking skills included are: historical causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, periodization, comparison, contextualization, historical argumentation, appropriate use of relevant historical evidence, interpretation, and synthesis. While these overlap with the AHA’s Tuning project’s History Discipline Core, they are more narrowly focused on the skills necessary to develop and defend historical positions, a focus that is more appropriate for high school students building foundations for college.

The new APUSH exam has pushed me and the teachers I work with to develop and teach courses more focused on what our students will learn to do—on the skills they will practice in our courses, hone throughout the year, demonstrate on the AP exam, and ultimately draw upon in college and career. We have shifted from thinking about how students learn history to considering how they will engage with it over and over again in class. Influenced by Conley’s work and the impetus of the Common Core state standards, we have simultaneously reprioritized depth of knowledge, discussion with evidence, research, writing, and civic mind-sets.

The organizing structure I use and teach to the teachers I coach is based upon the principles presented in Understanding by Design.4 I call it “the loop.” I begin with worthy historical questions, as these matter to historians, give students access points to the range of major issues at play with regard to a topic, and require students to employ historical thinking skills. The main event in every loop is the seminar. Before it occurs, we learn requisite context and examine the historical record, and after it occurs, we write. The loop is simple and elegant. Best of all, it is flexible enough to accommodate the range of skill objectives that a teacher might employ in response to student data, while anchoring the course in frequent, rigorous engagement with the content and the discipline’s core practice: making and defending historical claims with evidence in dialogue with others. At various stages in the loop, but particularly as students prepare for seminar and writing with text and other evidence, teachers embed frequent, authentic practice with the new historical thinking skills now emphasized by the AP exam.

The College Board has posted four planning and pacing guides on its website that offer other, more detailed approaches to carrying out the shifts in course design and instruction. As teachers revise their courses, I urge them to take the opportunity to explore these and to reimagine their objectives in terms of what students will be able to do as historians. I have earned a reputation in my networks as a champion of building student knowledge, and I think knowledge building is as important as ever. But I’ve also learned that knowledge without the practice of deep, independent historical analysis is shallow and short-lived. Knowledge is the foundation upon which students practice deep thinking. The new exam is an opportunity to embrace deep thinking in our instruction and to truly prepare our students for college, career, and citizenship.

Brenda Santos is academic dean at Amistad High School in New Haven, Connecticut. She began teaching APUSH in 2000 in the Bronx, New York, and has been formally training and coaching teachers since 2006. She has taught at both Southern Connecticut State and Yale Universities. She served on the College Board’s APUSH Test Development Committee from 2010 to 2013, and will begin her term as a member of the AHA Council and the Association’s Teaching Division in January 2015.


1. David T. Conley, Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

2. 2006 USH Released Exam: https://store.collegeboard.org/sto/productdetail.do?Itemkey=060082025.

3. Sample questions from the AP United States History Exam, originally published in the October 2012 AP US History Curriculum Framework. Available on the College Board’s website (bit.ly/1sto6Sq).

4. Grant P, Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).

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