AP U.S. History — reports from the front lines

I’ve written frequently about the College Board’s efforts to indoctrinate high school students with a left-wing narrative of American history, via its framework for teaching AP U.S. History. What’s been missing from my reports is the views of those on the front line — the teachers upon whom the College Board’s framework has been imposed.

Stanley Kurtz fills this gap with reports from two stellar history teachers, Elizabeth Altham and Marc Anderson.

Altham describes the pressure under which the College Board places her to discard her teaching techniques and the deeply-held beliefs that animate them, or risk her students’ performance on the exam. Her critique extends to the new AP European History framework which, she says, presents religion as something to evolve away from, presenting a Thomist point of view as immature in comparison to a skeptical secularism.

Anderson provides a look inside the College Board’s training program for AP U.S. History teachers which, he says, exalts Howard Zinn’s Marxist take on American history and primes teachers to blame America for the problems of the world, while overlooking its influence for the good.

Altham and Anderson agree that the changes to the College Board’s AP U.S. History framework, adopted under pressure, have not allayed their concerns.

The classroom and the training programs for AP U.S. History teachers constitute the front lines in the left’s battle to indoctrinate America’s high school students. But we shouldn’t forget about another important front — the rooms where teachers and professors hired by the College Board grade the AP U.S. History exams.

A reader has sent me a first-hand account of what’s transpiring there. He prefers to remain anonymous because the College Board has warned its graders not to talk to the media or to post on social media, and has already fired one grader for posting comments on Facebook.

Our reader’s focus is not on the College Board’s ideological bias, though he agrees it is manifest. His focus on the lowering of grading standards. (At the end of his account, I’ll suggest that the two may be related).

Our reader reports:

I think your post and the scholars letter [criticizing the AP U.S. History framework] if anything greatly understate the extent of the problems with the new exam. There is obvious left of center bias that the letter noted. That comes not only from the exam itself, but also the instructional materials [the College Board] provides to teachers. But there is an even deeper bias going on.

[The College Board] makes money by having students take exams. It is a rather corrupt bargain. School administrators make their schools look good by claiming “X % of our students take AP exams.” [The College Board] makes money by having more students take exams. Taxpayers foot the bill.

Thus a huge number of students take the exams without any reasonable chance of passing. I would say that 75% of students in past years should never have taken the US History exam. But that’s not good for business.

Over the past few years, [The College Board] has subtly pressured graders to increase student scores. This year the pressure is no longer subtle. Graders have been told to “give students the benefit of the doubt” and “set the bar very low.” (Those are actual quotes.)

But that’s not all. The whole structure of the exam’s scoring has been changed specifically, I believe, to increase scores. The old exam, for all its flaws (and NAS notwithstanding, there was always a lot of political bias toward the left) tested content and it was surprisingly rigorous by today’s standards of education. That’s why so few actually passed the exam.

So what they have done is largely eliminate content knowledge as a criteria for grading. For example, we are instructed to look for a thesis in student essay. An essay with a thesis gets a point and one without gets a zero (on a scale of 0-7). The problem is that is doesn’t matter what the thesis is, as long as there is a thesis.

Likewise with the use of documents. Students are given a set of documents and need to analyze the documents in an essay they write in 40 minutes. We are told to give the student 1 point if they use 4 of 6 documents and three points if they analyze most of the documents. Again, it doesn’t matter at all that the use is correct.

In short, being factually correct, understanding the context of the documents, etc., isn’t being graded (though some of us are violating that injunction). The exam has gone from a history exam to an exam that tests pedagogy, from “does this student know something about U.S. history?” to “does this student know how to take a test?”

No one should kid themselves that the old AP US History exam was unbiased. None of the essay questions over the past several years focused on the big questions of American history that would have met the approval of the [scholars’] letter signers. But what’s happened is that the exam used to be biased but content focused. Now it is biased but extremely weak on content.

As our reader says, the College Board has a financial incentive to generate good scores on the AP U.S. History exam. I suspect that it also has an ideological incentive.

Students likely will be better disposed to the leftist narrative of U.S. History they ingest if the end product is a good grade on the exam and some college credits. And more students will subject themselves to indoctrination if it holds the promise of these rewards.

I’ve always thought that this dynamic helps explain grade inflation at America’s colleges and universities. Is it just a coincidence that the inflation tends to be most pronounced in departments were leftism is most triumphant — e.g. Black studies, Women’s studies, English Literature, etc? I don’t think so.