The College Board Is in a Position to Create a De Facto National Curriculum

Stanley Kurtz, Washington Post, September 11, 2015

The College Board set off a firestorm last year by issuing what many saw as a left-biased curriculum framework for its Advanced Placement U.S. History course. This summer’s much-discussed revisions to that framework amount to less than meets the eye. The underlying bias remains, and few of the vaunted changes will filter down to the classroom.

The controversy, moreover, points to what will likely be our next great education debate. The College Board’s determination to issue detailed curriculum frameworks for all of its AP exams, in combination with the expansion of the AP program over the past decade or so, has brought the United States to the threshold of something nobody claims to want: a national curriculum.

Emerging around the time of the 1957 Sputnik launch, the early AP program highlighted the national interest in cultivating the very best students. In the 1980s and ’90s, worries about failing schools and an interest in maximizing opportunity for all spread AP courses from a few elite institutions to schools across the country. Initially, the focus was rightly on finding and educating talented students, regardless of income, ethnicity or race. Gradually, however, AP came to be seen as a method for quickly overcoming the achievement gap between poor and minority students and others, regardless of preparation.

In the 2000s, politicians of both parties jumped onto this expansion bandwagon. Federal and state governments began subsidizing AP testing fees. Several states mandated AP courses in all schools. Meanwhile, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations moved aggressively to expand AP participation.

As a result, the proportion of public high school graduates who took at least one AP exam rose from 18.9 percent in 2003 to 33.2 percent in 2013. {snip}

A substantial body of scholarly literature now raises questions about the excesses of AP expansion. Yale University’s William Lichten, for example, describes whole schools in which not a single AP student passes an exam. He calls the AP surge in many places a “disaster.” {snip}

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The massive increase in revenue from government-subsidized testing fees has also allowed the College Board to take over the sort of teacher training once managed by states and districts. Since it writes the exams, signs off on every AP course syllabus, controls teacher training and manages the revision of approved textbooks, the College Board is capable of exercising exceptionally tight control over the curriculum. {snip}

While this summer’s revisions in the AP U.S. History framework eliminate the most biased passages, the broader emphasis remains on themes such as gender and the environment, at the expense of military, diplomatic and political history. {snip}

The new AP European History framework reveals the College Board’s intentions more clearly. It is a virtual twin of the 2014 U.S. History curriculum, highlighting colonial oppression and the downside of capitalism, while playing down religion, democratic development and the failings of socialism.

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