I was browsing in the bookstore today, and I found myself flipping through guides to the AP US History exam. (Actually, my real motive here was to test my ABD knowledge by trying out some of the multiple choice questions. I did fairly well if I do say so myself….)

I was shocked to learn that the AP exam only dedicates 1/6 of its questions to colonial American history. For all intents and purposes, American history begins for the AP in 1607. Moreover, the commercial review texts (Princeton and others) spend only 10-25 pages reviewing events in the colonial period. One review suggested that students preparing for the AP should spend the least amount of time studying the first two (!) centuries of American history simply because there are fewer questions about it on the AP. (This makes sense, I suppose, from a time management perspective, but God forbid students should actually study something that might NOT be on the test.)

I have two problems with the emphasis the AP places on the nineteenth and twentieth century. This is not to say that these centuries aren’t important (to the contrary!), but students are left woefully underinformed about the formative period in our history. First, the AP’s structure gives the impression that American history begins in 1607. Actually, permanent English settlement in Jamestown began in 1607. Students are not encouraged to think about the enormity of the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans that occurred in the sixteenth century, the patterns of Spanish colonization and how they affected English and French colonization, nor are they taught to think about pre-Columbian history. Second, the period from around 1500-1800 shows enormous diversity of peoples and religions, explosive economic growth, and new forms of political and social interaction–all of which were departures from Old World patterns and had significant impacts on the post-Revolutionary age. None of the AP materials I examined make these characteristics and changes clear to high school students.

So I have to ask: how prepared are high school graduates with even a 4 or a 5 on the AP for a college-level US history class? While I realize that high school classes have a limited amount of time to work with, I have to say students who spend a year being “taught to the test” come away with a skewed vision of American history. There are plenty of commentators out there lamenting the American public’s ignorance of our history–and the AP has done nothing to help alleviate that.

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