It was 4:27 a.m. when Alejandra emailed a practice essay to me. In just a few hours, on May 15, the AP U.S. History exam would be administered, for the first time, online and at home for all students. Other students had completed extra practice essays at 10:00 p.m. the night before so I could advise whether they were ready for the exam the next day. The exam is now over and students have said time management and concerns about their grammatical and academic writing abilities were the biggest challenges of the exam.
Could a history exam with more realistic time restraints — available in multiple languages with grammar tools and utilizing more relevant content to students in my classes — have helped alleviate that pressure and tendency to overthink and waste time making sure they are using “proper” English? Perhaps then more students would have a real shot at showing their genuine abilities in history studies.
If you know the historical developments of East San Jose, California, you know that most students in my classes are predominantly working class, children of immigrants or immigrants of differing documentation status from Mexico or Central America. While sheltering in place, several are working and have become the sole provider for their family or are taking care of younger siblings. Some have family members with COVID-19 and still make sure to email that they can’t make it to virtual class.
I am a cisfemale teacher of color who has only worked in Title I schools (schools that can receive federal funding and have large concentrations of low-income students), teaching history for nine years. I began teaching AP U.S. History three years ago. I entered teaching as a social justice educator to support students with similar backgrounds to mine. I initially thought that teaching an AP course at a school that is 99 percent Latinx meant supporting students to pass an exam that would give them access to the crucial opportunity of a college education. I knew that the content would be primarily Eurocentric and male-dominated. I thought I could make peace with that and frame it to students as a game they maneuvered to access opportunities originally not intended for them. However, I immediately witnessed how the College Board, the creator of this extensive standardized college exam structure, neglects to consider accessibility for students with specific learning needs and who speak languages other than English. Fifty-four out of fifty-five of the students in my AP classes fit these criteria. The pandemic forced the College Board to disrupt the exam structure this year and focus on students’ access issues. Perhaps we can disrupt the exam’s content and further its accessibility as well.
The origin of this course and exam stems from a joint agreement in 1899 between 12 private universities, including Ivy Leagues such as Princeton and three preparatory high schools, to ensure a college admission pipeline for preparatory school students. This agreement ultimately allowed for the continued supremacy of white Americans in college admissions and enabled the College Board to be a gatekeeper through standardized exams.
AP U.S. History is consistently one of the top five most difficult AP exams, with around a 53 percent passing rate. The exam relies heavily on history from the 20th century (about 30 percent of the exam), since this time period is considered “common knowledge,” assuming students have parents and/or grandparents who grew up in the United States during the 20th century. Therefore, questions on the exam from this time period are exceptionally difficult and specific to political decisions made by white men. Out of the 13 free-response prompts about the 20th century in the last five years, at least nine prompts were focused on political decisions.
This specific exam content emphasizes the hegemonic norm that history created by white Americans is the most essential understanding for learning United States history. Even when prompts are about Americans of color, Indigenous people or women, it is often through the lens of how white men have influenced their experience. When women’s experiences are highlighted, often the documents within the prompt focus on how white women have led the way for change. For example, in a past prompt about the women’s rights movement of from the 1940s to the 1970s, only one out of seven documents provided was authored by a woman of color, despite women of color being integral to the movement.
This exam has been revised in recent years to reflect a focus on “historical thinking skills” such as continuity and change, causation and comparison — skills seen as necessary for college history courses. Why can’t students demonstrate these same skills by analyzing primary and secondary sources that highlight the lived experiences of and narratives created by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States? Currently, students must demonstrate those skills more often about the Whig Party than the Black Panther Party, even though both were impactful to the history of the United States. I argue that students could demonstrate continuity and change, causation and comparison more effectively if they analyzed the methods used by disenfranchised Americans to influence and challenge the political, economic and social decisions made by white men. For example, students could compare the ways women, Black Americans, immigrants and Indigenous people challenged United States involvement in the Vietnam War instead of the primary focus being on the reactions of white men as politicians or as members of the antiwar movement.
By passing this exam, students receive college credit for a prerequisite United States history course. Colleges agree that passing proves students have gained general college-level knowledge of United States history and can take advanced history courses that require that prerequisite. In a country that prides itself in its diversity to the world, should we not ensure that all students learning its general history are able to thoroughly analyze the essential contributions and influence BIPOC Americans and others have had throughout United States history?
Teachers of economically low-wealth students of color have to work significantly harder to teach AP content by providing the “common knowledge” students are assumed to have already acquired, and teach them the more complex and difficult topics that are almost always not their own history. At the same time, teachers need to help develop students’ academic English proficiency skills in order to interpret questions and prompts that are purposely worded in a way to trick even an “English-only” student.
Why do we have to work harder than teachers in affluent neighborhoods without support from the organization that created the exam? Why hasn’t the College Board explicitly and adequately adapted to meet the needs of diverse learners? The College Board’s inadequacies can also be seen in how it initially (and expensively) trains teachers. I passed the AP U.S. history exam in high school, I graduated from a top 20 university with Departmental Honors in History and I had taught six years of U.S. history at the time of the training. However, the moment I walked into that week-long training and saw predominantly white male teachers (16 out of 20), I immediately felt inadequate (re: imposter syndrome). I struggled to understand how I was supposed to teach so much content about white Americans to students in my classes. Students are often not able to use the suggestions provided, such as buying their own textbook or test preparation books, paying for tutoring services or having consistent access to the internet to use online resources at home. I frantically looked up every school of my fellow training participants to see if any had a similar student population. Every school was either a public school in an affluent city or a private school. The demographic makeup of this training’s participants will likely be similar to the group of AP teachers who will read and score the exam’s free-response sections in June.
In my continued search for guidance, I tried some online training from the College Board. I found that the video trainings consisted of solely white teachers and were filmed in classrooms of predominantly white students. In one training, a teacher introduces the 1920s and says, “Many of my students already know something about the 1920s [in the United States] when they take the AP course,” and proceeds to explain the strategy of activating students’ prior knowledge. How is this strategy relevant to students in my classes? Where would they obtain background knowledge about the 1920s in the United States when the majority have parents and grandparents who grew up in another country and often the media that students grew up with is in a different language?
So instead, I began developing my own strategies to support students of color. With the help of colleagues at our sister school, I created writing supports for English-learner students, weekly after-school sessions and three-and-a-half-hour-long practice exams on Saturdays. I tried to design supports for students such as Selena, who moved to the U.S. less than five years ago, who read, wrote and spoke almost entirely in Spanish. She used online translation tools at home to read the textbook in order to understand a history that was not her history. Selena was able to demonstrate a complex understanding of the content through her translated writing. Unfortunately, she did not pass the exam. Without being allowed her translation tools and in a timed situation, she had to translate the material quickly on her own and then respond in her second language. Should an exam aimed at assessing students’ historical thinking abilities also be allowed to test students’ proficiency in English? I argue that the exam should have the capabilities to be translated in different languages in order to more accurately assess historical thinking skills and content knowledge, not mastery of language.
The general AP exam structure also fails to adequately support students with specific learning needs. Paz is a former student who was labelled with dyslexia, specific learning disability and is an English learner. She came to almost every voluntary after-school session, bringing her toddler siblings while her parents were at work. She demonstrated an impressive ability to make long-range connections with content. However, the only accommodation she was provided was an extra 30 minutes (the College Board’s blanket accommodation for students with learning disabilities). Due to her difficulties with grammar and using academic English language in a timed situation, she had little opportunity to demonstrate her true worth as a historian.
The Pandemic as an Opportunity to Disrupt Inequitable Education Practices
The exam has been adjusted this year to be online and open notes, which means a student could use online translation tools. The exam was reduced to a 45-minute free-response essay. Instead of requiring students to interpret the tricky language of 55 multiple-choice questions correctly, students can instead focus on how to interpret a prompt and analyze documents, thereby demonstrating their analytical skills, not just their ability to decode tricky language. However, this still all occurs within an excessively high-pressure time limit.
Imagine a world where the exam would already be translated in multiple languages and students were able to use grammar and dictionary tools. An exam with more manageable time requirements and where the content students analyze is a more accurate reflection of their communities’ contributions to United States history. Perhaps then the focus of the exam would more definitively be on showing their historical thinking skills instead of how to interpret a language or a history that is often completely foreign to students in classes like mine. In the end, is that not what we want students’ college-level thinking to truly be about — making broader and more extensive connections? Students can take grammar and language courses once in college to work on how to show those thinking skills.
What this pandemic has taught me is that institutions are being pressured to address inequitable structures and barriers to access. The College Board has had to shorten an unnecessarily lengthy exam from four sections of multiple choice and free response to one section of free response. The College Board has had to provide free, more accessible resources such as YouTube classes taught by AP teachers (who are not only white teachers). The College Board has had to survey teachers on access to and the effectiveness of these resources. These changes demonstrate that the pandemic is exposing the fragility of these unjust, inequitable structures and swiftly disrupting them.
We are witnessing another inequitable structure of standardization within the pipeline to college topple as well. In April, the University of California announced that it will not be requiring the SAT, a standardized college entrance exam that is also administered by the College Board, for next year’s admissions. Without it, the University of California could essentially put more weight on the personal statement. The statement gives students from underrepresented backgrounds a space to explain their experience, how they’ve persevered despite access problems to equitable education, and demonstrate their cultural and social wealth beyond grades and test scores. The momentum to phase out standardized testing for equity reasons just received an even greater shift when the University of California’s governing board voted unanimously on May 21 to remove the SAT requirement until 2024 and indefinitely for California residents. Predictions are that other prominent colleges will follow suit. Will the AP exams be next? In order to stay viable and maintain legitimacy, the College Board will need to adapt and recognize the wealth of knowledge found within our increasingly diverse student population.
These examples of educational structures being disrupted and re-evaluated illuminate how we should not return to “business as usual.” Business as usual has thrived on maintaining and reproducing structures of white supremacy, and now we are forced to face these access issues head-on.
It is our job as teachers, educators and residents of this country to work toward social justice. Let’s not waste this opportunity to reinvent and revolutionize how we assess students’ preparation for college. I encourage students, educators, parents and guardians to share their stories and thoughts with the College Board about the access and equity issues they’ve encountered. We should also consider: Is the AP exam even necessary at all, and what or who should it be for?