A waning bliss.

One of the most melancholic moments of my childhood came on the first day of third grade. That was the day it truly hit me that my friends and I only had a year left on the good playground– the one with the tall, cylindrical jungle gym that served as our spaceship. It was a great jungle gym; it had interior and exterior bars, so we could pretend that the interior set was our engine room. The rounded bolt heads were the buttons that sped us through space, raised the shields, fired the weapons, and scanned for life on the sandbox or teeter-totter. Awesome, I know.

So that day, I was down because in a year’s time, we’d be torn from our beloved ship. Fourth graders and used a different playground, one with a plan old boring hemispherical jungle gym. All you could do with that is climb it, and what fun was that? It didn’t have interior bars– how could you possibly fix the engines? And the buttons were the wrong kind of buttons, and there weren’t enough nearby objects to scan, and so on. It was dome-shaped, not rocket-shaped, so unless you wanted to pretend it was some weak old flying saucer, you were out of luck spaceship-wise. Maybe we would eventually happen upon a way to imagine the fourth and fifth graders’ jungle gym dome into something awesome, but wouldn’t everyone be better off if my friends and I were permitted to keep using our preferred jungle gym to fix the warp core and blow up Klingons? The knowledge that I was going to lose the ship put a bit of a damper on each day we played.

Anyhow, that’s how I feel about this school year because the brain trust up at the College Board decided to ruin the AP United States History exam.

About a year into my teaching career, I realized that I wanted to teach American history in addition to (or instead of) government and economics. But we already had APUSH teachers in place, so I had to wait three years to get my shot. Loved it right off that bat. I’m probably better qualified to teach government and economics courses, because I have more coursework and credentials in those areas and because I’ve actually read those textbooks, but APUSH is certainly my favoritest of the bunch. One reason is that it’s a year long whereas my other classes get unmercifully cut off at the semester’s end. Another reason is that, being essentially a great big wonderfully elaborate story that attempts explains how we got to now and today, I find it inherently less dry than the government or economics classes. Another another reason is the multitude of viewpoints, and the endless onion-like layers of history, and that in peeling them back you’ll always find more to the story. I love it more with each passing year.

And the College Board has gone and pooched it. The upcoming school year will see the last APUSH exam administered under the current format: an even balance of writing essays and answering objective multiple-choice questions. The new format, to be administered in May of 2015, puts far more emphasis on writing– which is good– but what few multiple-choice questions remain (it’ll be less than half the number we have now) will depend mostly on how well a student can read a primary or secondary document.

Don’t get the wrong idea: utilizing information from documents is a vital skill, but the expanded essay portion will more than cover that skill. The new multiple-choice section de-emphasizes objective knowledge (i.e., knowing facts) and instead emphasizes reading skills. So if you don’t know much history, but you’re a strong reader, you’d be screwed on the current version of the exam, but you’ll do well on the new exam. The lazy but bright kids will benefit from the upcoming change.

Conversely, if you have an abundance of objective knowledge about history but you’re not as strong or as fast a reader, you might do well enough on the current version, but you’re in a lot of trouble on the new version of the test.

In short, the new test will emphasize reading skills more and historical knowledge less. It’s more of an intelligence test and less of a history test.

I followed the APUSH listservs for months after this decision was announced. There were virtually no positive comments about the changes to the exam. Granted, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or at least the attention if not the grease, but I don’t remember seeing anyone stick up for these changes.

The new exam and course design may turn out to be fine or even better than the current exam, but it’s hard to see either of those possibilities happening. But we’re still a year out, and in the meantime, I’ll just have to enjoy smooshing as much APUSH as possible into my students’ brains.

I’ll edit tomorrow if necessary.