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Origins of the Revision: The Advanced Placement World History Redesign Commission

Alan Karras


     The Advanced Placement Course Redesign Commissions received their charges during the summer of 2006; each of the AP history courses, along with those in the sciences, was placed under review. The College Board directed the courses and exams to be studied; to achieve this end, it created a Redesign Commission for each exam. In the case of World History, it named Jerry Bentley and me as Co-Chairs. Jerry was called upon because he was a longstanding member of the College Board's Academic Advisory Committee. I had just become Chair of the AP World History Development Committee, which had exactly one previous Chair, Peter Stearns. Both Jerry and I expressed some concern, along with other members of the Development Committee, about the reasons for the course and exam review.

     Those concerns were addressed in several meetings at the College Board's New York offices. The first of these was a meeting, late in the summer of 2006, of the Chairs of all of the Redesign Commissions. Each of the Chairs was, at that time, given the CB's charge to the Commissions, which largely consisted of answering whether or not the AP Course aligned with best practice college courses. The Commissions were all charged with making sure that the redesigned courses did align after any changes. Moreover, the CB wanted to make very sure that that all of the AP History Courses also aligned with each other, in that there would be no difference in skills from one course to the next.

     The rest of that first meeting was spent creating, discussing, and revising the list of historical thinking skills that should be common to all of the courses. That recommendation then went to all of the History Redesign Commissions for further discussion and revision.

     The Redesign Commissions themselves were all formed so that every one of the interested parties was included: high school teachers from public and private schools, from both wealthy and disadvantaged districts. So too were all of the post-secondary institutions represented: public two- and four- year institutions, private Colleges and Universities. Regional diversity was also mandated. The idea was to get as diverse a group of interests together in order to look closely at the AP courses.

     There were four meetings of the Redesign Commission, three in New York and one in San Francisco, during the 2006-07 academic year. Each meeting lasted two full days and required two additional full days of work between meetings. Members of the Commission included (in addition to Jerry Bentley and me): Lauren Benton, Ken Curtis, Ryba Epstein, Michelle Forman, Jonathan Lee, Ane Lintvedt, Annette Palmer, and Sigrid Reynolds. At its first meeting, the Commission looked at the historical thinking skills as well as the themes in the AP World History course—which were pretty close to existing themes that were already in the course. Revisions to the themes were thus quickly implemented in the Course Description released in 2007.

     At subsequent meetings, Commission members examined the existing course description as well as identified best practice courses, and then -imagined what the World History course might look like. We began with the course periods, and made some small changes there. For example, one of the things that we determined was that teachers were spending too much time on the very first part of the course and then not getting to teach the twentieth century; we suggested changes that we hoped would address this. Much of our discussion was focused on how to help teachers balance breadth and depth while simultaneously making sure that any resulting changes would mirror the best practice college course.

     After tackling the way that the Course was periodized, Commission members began to look at the "Big Ideas" that were required in each period. Moreover, each of those big ideas needed to be supported with examples. This required us to construct narrative paragraphs that explained the "Big Ideas" and provided some illustrative examples for each. We also struggled to make sure that the "Big Ideas" supported and incorporated the existing course themes. Finally, at our last meeting, we began to generate a list of required topics, as well as those that were good examples for teaching a particular subject or idea for each period. We never really finished this work beyond creating an outline of what we believed the best examples were for each period.

     Jerry Bentley and I, with the help of Commission members, then created a final report in response to the College Board's charge to us. It suggested a new way to organize the course, which we anticipated would give teachers more freedom to feel comfortable deviating from a list of subjects that they believed were required. Our goal was to take the existing course and make it clear to teachers that they had more leeway to teach (or not to teach) specific content, as long as they covered the "Big Ideas" for each period. With that, the Commission's work had been completed.

     But, of course, the redesign was not completed. The next step of the process, during the 2007-08 academic year, was to take the Big Ideas and figure out what students needed to do in order to demonstrate that they had actually mastered the Big Ideas. Using the ideas of "Evidence Centered Design" at a couple of additional meetings in New York (which had some members of the Redesign Commission and some members of the Development Committee in attendance), each of the AP history groups worked on taking their proposed course and translating it into a series of claims that could generate information about what students did and did not know. In addition, there was an extended discussion about how to measure student achievement for each of these claims. In the end, the History participants all agreed on a common set of "Achievement Level Descriptors." The goal here, again, was to make sure that all of the exams shared as much in common as possible.

     All of these documents: the set of historical thinking skills, along with the proposed course revision and Achievement Level Descriptors were then turned over to the College Board. At that point, I turned my attention back to the current exam, and continued to chair the Development Committee for the existing course.

     In an accompanying essay in this issue of World History Connected, Laura Mitchell describes the work undertaken in the 2008-09 academic year by the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee. The committee members (Laura Mitchell, Lauren Benton, David Christian, Sharon Cohen, Ryba Epstein, Frank Guridy, Bram Hubble, and Bill Strickland) engaged in the task of establishing the examples to use in the draft framework, creating sample syllabi, began the task of preparing teacher training materials and consider sample exam questions. All of us look forward to the fall when all this work reaches fruition.

Alan Karras is Associate Director, International and Area Studies Teaching Program, University of California Berkeley (


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