Social Education 58(3), 1994, pp. 145-148
National Council for the Social Studies
The AP United States History Exam: Have Free Response Essays Changed in the Last Thirty Years?Michael S. Henry
Since its inception in 1956, the Advanced Placement (AP) United States history program has grown from an examination given to 207 students (Rothschild 1991) to 105,806 students in 1992 (AP Year-Book 1992). Over almost four decades, the examination program has expanded from an option limited mainly to twelfth graders in private schools to a broad-based testing opportunity primarily for eleventh grade, public school students (AP Year-Book 1992).
The College Board appoints a committee of examiners made up of three college-level and three secondary-level teachers to construct the examination, which has two sections: an essay portion and a multiple choice portion. Since 1973, one of the essay questions has been a Document-Based Question (DBQ) that requires students to analyze and use primary sources as they answer the question. The other essays, known as free response questions, allow students to demonstrate written mastery of historical events and interpretations, to examine common themes in different historical periods, to compare individuals or group experiences in the development of the United States, and to connect literary and cultural developments with larger issues in American history (A Student Guide 1992).
Transformation of the Essay Portion of the Test
The AP United States history program has not only grown dramatically over the years, it has also changed considerably. No part of the test has undergone more dramatic transformation than the essay portion. From the mid-1950s through 1982, the essay section had 75 percent of the examination's value. In recent years, the essays and the multiple-choice section have had equal value. Until 1973, students answered three free response essays. That year, however, the committee of examiners introduced the Document-Based Questions, and students were required to answer the DBQ along with one or two free-response questions on the essay section of the exam (Henry 1986).
Although most AP United States history teachers have access to the essays after each year's test, no one until now has made a longitudinal study of the essays and examined their evolution over the years. I have done so because I believe that such an inquiry could be valuable to teachers on several levels.
After almost 40 years, the AP United States history test is one of the oldest evaluation tools in the social studies curriculum, and has become integral to the evaluation of history teaching and learning. As an examination of skills and content for a college-level United States history survey, its evolution offers a road map of changes in historiography and content over the last four decades. Moreover, since college-level instruction influences the content and textbooks in secondary schools, modifications in collegiate courses are likely to have meaning and importance for secondary instruction as well.
For AP teachers, specifically, the test is an important part of their professional lives. Most AP instructors measure their teaching effectiveness by their students' performance on the test (Henry 1991). By gaining a perspective on the essays on the examination, teachers can better structure their writing assignments to coincide with the types of essay questions likely to be found on the examination and improve student readiness.
Although this "teaching-to-the-test" strategy is often criticized, the practice is widespread in AP history classes (Henry 1991). Furthermore, the test drives the curriculum in a positive direction. The exam does not test rote memorization. Rather, it requires students to master skills and content necessary to succeed in a college-level history course. Students must understand relationships between historical facts, evaluate primary documents, and write analytical essays to be successful on the test. A teacher committed to these goals will teach analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, the highest objectives in the social studies curriculum. With the AP program and curriculum, teachers are on sound pedagogical ground in specifically preparing their students for the examination.
I traced the trends in the free response essays from 1963 to 1992 by developing a categorization system that produced a matrix of essay questions in five-year periods for those thirty years (Table 1). The seven categories of questions were:
1.Intellectual and cultural issues: Questions addressing how literature, art, architecture, and religion influenced United States history.
2. Minority issues: Questions addressing the role of African Americans, women, and American Indians in the development of the United States.
3. Political issues: Questions addressing evolution of political parties, legislative action, Supreme Court rulings, presidential administrations, and reform movements.
4. Military and diplomatic issues: Questions addressing American involvement in armed conflicts and relations with other nations.
5. Historiographic issues: Questions addressing the history of history, as well as schools of historical interpretation.
6. Economic and business issues: Questions addressing employment, monetary policy, labor relations, and industrial and agricultural developments.
7. Immigration issues: Questions addressing trends in immigration and how immigration influenced American development.
Placing a question in a category depended on its manifest content. Often in the social sciences, an issue may fall into more than one aspect of life. For example, students might be asked to consider a question on the economic conditions that contributed to the American Revolution. Although the Revolution was a political upheaval, the intent of the question was to analyze the economic issues that contributed to it. It would therefore be placed in the economic and business category. The dominant issue in this process relates to how students were asked to consider the criteria used for question placement.
To validate the process of categorization, I asked another AP United States history teacher to place 53 questions into the 7 categories. The other teacher and the author agreed on 47 of 53 questions (88.7 percent).
The free response essay section of the AP United States history examination has had four significant transitions in the last thirty years: 1964, 1965, 1973, 1976 (Figure 1). (It will change again in 1994 with students answering two essays in addition to the DBQ.) Most of the modifications occurred with the introduction of the Document-Based Question (DBQ) and the expansion of the multiple-choice section of the exam from 25 percent of the test to 50 percent of the test.
The overall distribution of free response questions on the AP exam from 1963 to 1992 is expressed in Figure 2. The trends in percentage use of political, economic/business, intellectual, and historiographic free response essays are shown in Figure 3. Percentage trends in military/diplomatic, minority, and immigration free response essays are tracked in Figure 4.
Discussion of Findings
As Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate, traditional history has dominated the essay portion of the AP test over the past 30 years. Political, military, and diplomatic issues on presidential administrations, legislation, treaties, court decisions, and wars represented 55.3 percent (119/215) of the essay choices.
The results suggest that these topics form the core of a college survey course. Although some writers consider these topics components of old-fashioned, narrative history, in AP classes political, military, and foreign policy issues should receive substantial attention. Moreover, high school students should assess America's political, military, and diplomatic challenges on their classroom essays. The committee of examiners believes that these topics should be a primary focus of a college-level survey. AP students who are well versed in politics, diplomacy, and military history will receive instruction consistent with college-level courses and will find many choices on the free response essay section of the AP test as well.
The findings also indicate that the new social history of the last 20 years has entered the content of the essay selections. The committee of examiners increasingly included questions on women, African Americans, and American Indians on the test. Although the number of questions varied from time to time, students could regularly count on seeing this category represented on the test.
These topics must be integrated into the course materials, and students should think and write about minority contributions to American development. Our society has become increasingly aware of the need to reflect our culturally diverse population in the mainstream of American life. As part of this process, historians have broadened their writing to include people who in the past were powerless and ignored. The increased percentage of questions about minority groups on the AP exam reflects this commitment to an inclusive view of American history.
For AP teachers, the inclusion is not only a fairness issue. With student performance on the examination in the forefront of most teachers' minds, they can improve their instruction and possibly raise student achievement by expanding the curriculum to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and American Indians.
Questions on economics and business were also important to the committee of examiners over the last three decades. However, although this category consistently accounted for 16-20 percent of the essay choices, it receives little attention in AP history courses. Teachers often overlook or avoid the economic development of the United States because they are uncomfortable dealing with fiscal or monetary issues. In other cases, instructors may believe their students cannot grasp the technical intricacies of tariff and banking problems.
Over the last 30 years, however, historians have tapped disciplines such as economics to deepen our understanding of American development. The expansion of economic/business essay questions reflects this increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the study of U.S. history. High school instructors who acknowledge this shift and expand their teaching to include economics will provide a relevant historical education and enhance their students' preparation for the AP test.
Influence of the Test Committee
Certainly the membership of the six-person test committee affects the types of questions appearing on the test, and may account for some of the fluctuation in the selection of questions. The College Board appoints members to single year terms, but normally reappoints them for three successive years. Through this process, the College Board promotes both continuity and change in the test's construction. As advocates of a specific category of essay come and go, the composition of the examination is likely to change briefly, but lasting modification occurs only if the committee membership establishes a consensus over a period of years.
This fluctuation may explain the uneven appearance of intellectual/cultural questions on the test. The category had bursts of popularity that were not found among the other types of questions (Figure 3). Proponents of those questions may have found support for this category during their tenure on the committee. Yet, as they left, the number of questions fell back to previous percentage levels.
Overall, the committee of examiners did not believe a strong link between history and the arts was necessary in the survey course. Rather, within the crowded history curriculum, they assigned arts and literature marginal importance. As a practical matter, AP teachers might limit the study of the arts in their courses. Such a decision would not compromise the integrity of the survey nor restrict greatly students' choices of essays on the AP test.
Furthermore, the committee deemed immigration issues and historiography less important than other topics of study. It appears that, in part, questions about African Americans and women replaced those involving immigration. The committee also apparently believed that, along with art and literature, the survey was not an appropriate place for an in-depth study of historiography. Although the exact dynamics of the committee's decisions are murky, the composition of the essay section suggests these two categories had relatively less significance in the minds of the committee over the period of investigation.
Essay choices appearing on the AP examination in the last three decades have been relatively stable. The selections concerned political, military, and diplomatic issues with growing attention to social and economic history. Overall, the choices reflected both tradition and change in the college survey course. Moreover, the test committee, through its selection, sent a clear message to teachers: no short cuts are available to success on the AP essay section.
Neither teachers nor students can easily anticipate specific essays on the examination. Focusing on a few selected topics just prior to the test will not help students. Rather, they can expect a broad menu of choices that require a firm grounding in the basic content of United States history. This is the goal of the testing program and the likely circumstances students will confront when they open the essay section of the AP United States history examination.
AP Year-Book: Challenging Students to Reach for Excellence. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1992.
A Student Guide to the AP U.S. History Course and Examination. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1992.
Henry, Michael S. "Advanced Placement U.S. History: What Happens After the Examination?" The Social Studies 82 (May/June 1991): 94-96.
-----. "The Intellectual Origins and Impact of the Document-Based Question." American Historical Association Perspectives 24 (February 1986): 14-16.
Rothschild, Eric. Teacher's Guide to Advanced Placement (AP) Courses in United States History. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1991.
Michael S. Henry is an Advanced Placement history teacher at Bowie High School, Prince George's County, Maryland.
The redesign has brought a great deal of uncertainty and confusion amongst APUSH teachers. In many ways, we are all “rookie” teachers, as all of us have the challenge of implementing fundamental curricular and skills-based changes into our classrooms.
One of the more significant changes is to the structure of one essay on the AP exam, the Document Based question (DBQ). The rubric for the DBQ was previously a more holistic essay that combined a strong thesis, and use of documents and outside information to support the argument. This has been transformed into a much more structured and formulaic skills-based rubric. The change has led to a healthy debate about the pros and cons of both types of essays, but in general the core of the essay has remained the same: write a thesis and support it with evidence in the form of documents and outside information. If students continue to apply these basic writing skills, they are likely to earn 3 or 4 out of the seven total points for the Document Based Question.
In this post, we will explore one of these points students will be looking to earn to help their chances at passing the APUSH exam this May: the Contextualization point.
What is Contextualization?
According to the College Board, contextualization refers to a:
Historical thinking skill that involves the ability to connect historical events and processes to specific circumstances of time and place as well as broader regional, national, or global processes.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
Contextualization is a critical historical thinking skill that is featured in the newly redesigned course. In my opinion, this is a skill of fundamental importance for students to utilize in the classroom. Often times, students find history difficult or boring because they don’t see connections between different historical time periods and the world they live in today. They assume that events occur in a vacuum, and don’t realize that the historical context is critical in helping explain people’s beliefs and points of view in that period of time. Putting events into context is something I always thought was important, but now that the College Board explicitly has established the skill, it has forced me to be more proactive in creating lessons and assignments that allow students to utilize this way of thinking.
The place that contextualization is most directly relevant on the actual AP exam itself is the Document Based Question. In order to earn the point for contextualization, students must:
Situate historical events, developments, or processes within the broader regional, national, or global context in which they occurred in order to draw conclusions about their relative significance.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
In other words, students are asked to provide background before jumping right into their thesis and essay and paint a picture of what is going on at the time of the prompt. Although there is no specific requirement as to where contextualization should occur, it makes natural sense to place it in the introduction right before a thesis point. Placing this historical background right at the beginning sets the stage for the argument that will occur in the body of the essay, and is consistent with expectations many English teachers have in how to write an introduction paragraph.
I explain contextualization to students by using the example of Star Wars. Before the movie starts, the film begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and continues with background information on the characters, events, and other information that is crucial to understanding the film. Without this context, the viewer would not know what is going on, and might miss key events or be lost throughout the film. This is what contextualization aims to do in student essays. It sets the stage for their thesis, evidence, and argument that is to follow.
Contextualization vs. Historical Context
One aspect of the DBQ rubric that can be a bit confusing initially is that students are asked to do this contextualization, but there is also another area which gives them the option to use historical context. So what is the difference?
Contextualization refers to putting the entire essay into a broader context (preferably in the introduction). However, when writing their essays, students are also required to analyze four of the documents that they utilize by either examining the author’s point of view, describing the intended audience of the source, identifying the author’s purpose or putting the source into historical context. The latter sounds similar to contextualization (and it is essentially the same skill), but historical context is only focused on the specific document being analyzed, not the entire essay, like the contextualization point. For example, if a document is a map that shows slavery growing dramatically from 1820 to 1860, a student might point out that this growth can be explained in the context of the development of the cotton gin, which made the production of cotton much more profitable and let to the spread of slavery in the Deep South. While essentially the same skill, historical context focuses on one specific document’s background.
Examples of Successful Student Contextualization Points
One of the biggest pitfalls that prevent students from earning the contextualization point is that they are too brief or vague. In general, it would be difficult for students to earn the point if they are writing only a sentence or two. Early in the year, I assigned students a DBQ based on the following prompt:
Evaluate the extent in which the Civil War was a turning point in the lives of African Americans in the United States. Use the documents and your knowledge of the years 1860-1877 to construct your response.
This was the third DBQ we had written, and students were now getting brave enough to move beyond a thesis and document analysis and started attempting to tackle the contextualization point. However, the attempts were all over the map. One student wrote:
The Civil War was a bloody event that led to the death of thousands of Americans.
Of course this is a true statement, but is extremely vague. What led to the Civil War? Why was it so deadly? Without any specific detail, this student could not earn the contextualization point.
Another student wrote:
Slavery had existed for hundreds of years in the United States. It was a terrible thing that had to be abolished.
Again, this is a drive-by attempt at earning contextualization. It mentions things that are true, but lacks any meaningful details or explanation that would demonstrate understanding of the time period in discussion. What led to the beginning of slavery in the colonies? How did it develop? What made it so horrible? How did individuals resist and protest slavery? These are the types of details that would add meaning to contextualization.
One student nailed it. She wrote:
The peculiar institution of slavery had been a part of America’s identity since the founding of the original English colony at Jamestown. In the early years, compromise was key to avoiding the moral question, but as America entered the mid 19th century sectional tensions and crises with popular sovereignty, Kansas, and fugitive slaves made the issue increasingly unavoidable. When the Civil War began, the war was transformed from one to simply save the Union to a battle for the future of slavery and freedom in the United States.
Now THAT is contextualization! It gives specific details about the beginning of slavery and its development. It discusses attempts at compromise, but increasing sectional tensions that led to the Civil War. The writer paints a vivid and clear picture of the situation, events, and people that set the stage for the Civil War. Students don’t want to write a 6-8 sentence paragraph (they will want to save time for their argument in the body), but they need to do more than write a vague sentence that superficially addresses the era.
Strategies for Teaching Contextualization to Students
Analyze Lots of Primary Sources
One of the best ways to prepare for the DBQ is for students to practice reading and comprehending primary source texts, particularly texts that are written by people who use very different language and sentence structure from today. This helps them understand and analyze documents, but it also can be helpful in practicing contextualization. Looking at different perspectives and points of view in the actual historical time periods they are learning is key in allowing students to understand how the era can impact beliefs, values and events that occur.
Assign Many DBQ Assessments and Share Specific Examples
The more often students write DBQs, the more comfortable students will get with the entire process and skill set involved, including contextualization. One thing that has been especially successful in my classroom is to collect a handful of student attempts at the contextualization point and share them with students. Students then get to examine them and look at effective and less effective attempts at earning contextualization. Often the best way for students to learn what to do or how to improve is to see what their classmates have done.
Incorporating In-Class Activities
The course is broken into nine distinct time periods from 1491 to present. In each period or unit students are assigned activities that force them to put a specific policy, event, or movement into context. For example, we did lecture notes on the presidency of JFK, learning about the Man on the Moon Speech, Cuban Missile Crisis, and creation of the Peace Corps. Students had to write 3-4 sentences that asked them to put these events in historical context using the Cold War. This allowed students to understand that each of these seemingly unrelated historical events were shaped by the tension between the United States and Soviet Union: winning the space race, stopping a communist nuclear threat less than 100 miles from Florida, and spreading goodwill into nations that might otherwise turn to communism all are strategies the United States used to thwart the Soviet threat. By doing this activity, students gain an appreciation for how historical context shapes events and decisions of the day.
Teach Cause and Effect in United States History
It is very easy to get caught up as a teacher in how to best get lots of minutia and factoids into students heads quickly and efficiently. However, if we can teach history not as a series of independent and unrelated events, but as a series of events that have a causal relationship that impact what happens next, this helps students grasp and understand contextualization. For example, in the lead-up to World War I, students create a timeline of events that led to America entering the conflict. As students examine the torpedoing of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmermann telegram, etc., they gain an understanding that it was not a random decision by President Wilson, but rather a series of events that precipitated the declaration of war. This is what contextualization is: the background that sets the stage for a particular moment in American history.
Examine Contextualization with Current Events
I know what you are thinking, I have one school year (less if your school year starts in September) to get through 1491 to Present and now I am supposed to make this a current events class as well? The answer is yes and no. Will stuff from the news pages be content the students need to know for the exam: absolutely not. However, it is a great opportunity for students to understand that our past explains why our country is what it is today.
For example, President Obama’s decision to work towards normalizing relations with Cuba makes more sense if students think about it through the lens of contextualization. The United States invaded Cuba in 1898 in the Spanish-American War and set up a protectorate. Cubans, upset with what they perceived as U.S. meddling and intervention led a communist revolution in 1959, ousting the American-backed government and setting the stage for one of the scariest moments in the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Looking at how the past shapes current events today helps students understand this skill, and it also helps them gain a deeper appreciation of how important history is in shaping the world around them.
Any time changes happen, there is a temptation to be reactionary and reject them. I have found that by being more deliberate about helping students understand historical context, their engagement and understanding have improved significantly. Teachers always are fighting that battle between covering the content (which is daunting in an AP course) and helping students understand the “so what?” question. Why does this matter to me? By making connections, students can see that history does not every happen in a vacuum. Our shared narrative is a series of events and ideas that continuously evolve and build off of each other. When students gain a firm understanding of how the past impacts their lives today, it makes learning way more meaningful and fun.
Contextualization is tough for students at first, but it is a skill application that can be perfected and improved to maximize your students’ chances of earning that point and rocking the AP exam.
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Ben Hubing is an educator at Greendale High School in Greendale, Wisconsin. Ben has taught AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the last eight years and was a reader last year for the AP U.S. History Short Answer. Ben earned his Bachelors degree at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters degree at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.