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Recent changes to the exam for AP U.S. History have some parents in Utah and nationwide worried about a perceived push to teach revisionist history in schools.
But Robert Austin, a social studies specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, told lawmakers on Tuesday that no such effort exists and the new AP exam is designed to improve understanding of American government.
"What's changing is the way students are going to be assessed and the deeper thinking that they're going to be doing," he said.
Roughly 5,600 Utah students are currently enrolled in AP U.S. History classes, Austin said, compared to the 33,000 taking the comparable but less rigorous U.S. History 2.
AP U.S. History students can earn college credit by passing the exam, administered by the private company College Board, which also oversees the SAT.
Critics say the materials distributed by College Board to help teachers plan for this year's test leave out important figures, such as Martin Luther King and America's founding fathers, while emphasizing negative aspects of the nation's history and injecting a political agenda into coursework.
"It gutted foundational American History and gave a lot of people some strong concerns," said Oak Norton, an education advocate affiliated with the group Utahns Against Common Core.
Austin emphasized that the classes are being taught by local educators with materials approved by local administrators.
He said students taking the previous version of the AP U.S. History Exam were largely required to regurgitate facts and dates with little emphasis on critical thinking. "The course outline was a mile wide and an inch deep," Austin said.
Now there are fewer multiple choice questions and more short-answer or essay questions, he said. The changes are intended to help students compare and contextualize historic events and craft their own arguments, he explained.
Austin said a past test might ask students to identify the number of branches in the United States government, but the new test would ask students why there are three branches and why the media is sometimes referred to as a fourth branch.
"What we want to do is to extend student learning into the development of historical thinking skills," he said.
Austin said test preparation materials are merely a framework to ensure crucial material is covered by teachers. He said local educators are free to run their classes as they see fit.
The College Board's framework for may not list the names of every founding father, Austin said, but it's improbable that an AP U.S. History teacher would discuss the Revolutionary War and Declaration of Independence without mentioning George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson.
"It is not a detailed manual for how to teach the course," he said.
Norton said it's possible that teachers are covering topics not explicitly listed in College Board materials. But he said it's more likely that daily classroom decisions are being made with the exam in mind.
"I think some of our excellent teachers probably do go into other topics but the idea behind an AP class is that the teacher is preparing you to pass the test," he said. "Teachers in general are not teaching beyond the test. They teach to the test so whoever controls the test controls the curriculum."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she supports a move away from the rote memorization of dates and numbers. She said students are better served by drawing conclusions from historical events than correctly identifying the number of seats in Congress.
"I am glad to see the diminished role of facts and incorporating things like cause and effect," she said. "I think this is absolutely going the right direction."
And Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, who previously taught social studies, remarked that civic education has been neglected in favor of recent pushes to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, collectively known as STEM.
He said that an renewed focus on critical thinking in social studies and history courses was necessary to help residents better understand how they can be involved in their community.
"We're finding that the overall level of civics understanding has been declining," he said. "How do you govern a country of people who don't understand how they're governed?"