Social Education 58(3), 1994, pp. 145-148
National Council for the Social Studies

The AP United States History Exam: Have Free Response Essays Changed in the Last Thirty Years?

Michael S. Henry
Since its inception in 1956, the Advanced Placement (AP) United States history program has grown from an examination given to 207 students (Rothschild 1991) to 105,806 students in 1992 (AP Year-Book 1992). Over almost four decades, the examination program has expanded from an option limited mainly to twelfth graders in private schools to a broad-based testing opportunity primarily for eleventh grade, public school students (AP Year-Book 1992).
The College Board appoints a committee of examiners made up of three college-level and three secondary-level teachers to construct the examination, which has two sections: an essay portion and a multiple choice portion. Since 1973, one of the essay questions has been a Document-Based Question (DBQ) that requires students to analyze and use primary sources as they answer the question. The other essays, known as free response questions, allow students to demonstrate written mastery of historical events and interpretations, to examine common themes in different historical periods, to compare individuals or group experiences in the development of the United States, and to connect literary and cultural developments with larger issues in American history (A Student Guide 1992).

Transformation of the Essay Portion of the Test
The AP United States history program has not only grown dramatically over the years, it has also changed considerably. No part of the test has undergone more dramatic transformation than the essay portion. From the mid-1950s through 1982, the essay section had 75 percent of the examination's value. In recent years, the essays and the multiple-choice section have had equal value. Until 1973, students answered three free response essays. That year, however, the committee of examiners introduced the Document-Based Questions, and students were required to answer the DBQ along with one or two free-response questions on the essay section of the exam (Henry 1986).

Although most AP United States history teachers have access to the essays after each year's test, no one until now has made a longitudinal study of the essays and examined their evolution over the years. I have done so because I believe that such an inquiry could be valuable to teachers on several levels.

After almost 40 years, the AP United States history test is one of the oldest evaluation tools in the social studies curriculum, and has become integral to the evaluation of history teaching and learning. As an examination of skills and content for a college-level United States history survey, its evolution offers a road map of changes in historiography and content over the last four decades. Moreover, since college-level instruction influences the content and textbooks in secondary schools, modifications in collegiate courses are likely to have meaning and importance for secondary instruction as well.

For AP teachers, specifically, the test is an important part of their professional lives. Most AP instructors measure their teaching effectiveness by their students' performance on the test (Henry 1991). By gaining a perspective on the essays on the examination, teachers can better structure their writing assignments to coincide with the types of essay questions likely to be found on the examination and improve student readiness.

Although this "teaching-to-the-test" strategy is often criticized, the practice is widespread in AP history classes (Henry 1991). Furthermore, the test drives the curriculum in a positive direction. The exam does not test rote memorization. Rather, it requires students to master skills and content necessary to succeed in a college-level history course. Students must understand relationships between historical facts, evaluate primary documents, and write analytical essays to be successful on the test. A teacher committed to these goals will teach analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, the highest objectives in the social studies curriculum. With the AP program and curriculum, teachers are on sound pedagogical ground in specifically preparing their students for the examination.

I traced the trends in the free response essays from 1963 to 1992 by developing a categorization system that produced a matrix of essay questions in five-year periods for those thirty years (Table 1). The seven categories of questions were:

1.Intellectual and cultural issues: Questions addressing how literature, art, architecture, and religion influenced United States history.
2. Minority issues: Questions addressing the role of African Americans, women, and American Indians in the development of the United States.
3. Political issues: Questions addressing evolution of political parties, legislative action, Supreme Court rulings, presidential administrations, and reform movements.
4. Military and diplomatic issues: Questions addressing American involvement in armed conflicts and relations with other nations.
5. Historiographic issues: Questions addressing the history of history, as well as schools of historical interpretation.
6. Economic and business issues: Questions addressing employment, monetary policy, labor relations, and industrial and agricultural developments.
7. Immigration issues: Questions addressing trends in immigration and how immigration influenced American development.
Placing a question in a category depended on its manifest content. Often in the social sciences, an issue may fall into more than one aspect of life. For example, students might be asked to consider a question on the economic conditions that contributed to the American Revolution. Although the Revolution was a political upheaval, the intent of the question was to analyze the economic issues that contributed to it. It would therefore be placed in the economic and business category. The dominant issue in this process relates to how students were asked to consider the criteria used for question placement.

To validate the process of categorization, I asked another AP United States history teacher to place 53 questions into the 7 categories. The other teacher and the author agreed on 47 of 53 questions (88.7 percent).

The free response essay section of the AP United States history examination has had four significant transitions in the last thirty years: 1964, 1965, 1973, 1976 (Figure 1). (It will change again in 1994 with students answering two essays in addition to the DBQ.) Most of the modifications occurred with the introduction of the Document-Based Question (DBQ) and the expansion of the multiple-choice section of the exam from 25 percent of the test to 50 percent of the test.

The overall distribution of free response questions on the AP exam from 1963 to 1992 is expressed in Figure 2. The trends in percentage use of political, economic/business, intellectual, and historiographic free response essays are shown in Figure 3. Percentage trends in military/diplomatic, minority, and immigration free response essays are tracked in Figure 4.

Discussion of Findings
As Figures 2 and 3 demonstrate, traditional history has dominated the essay portion of the AP test over the past 30 years. Political, military, and diplomatic issues on presidential administrations, legislation, treaties, court decisions, and wars represented 55.3 percent (119/215) of the essay choices.

The results suggest that these topics form the core of a college survey course. Although some writers consider these topics components of old-fashioned, narrative history, in AP classes political, military, and foreign policy issues should receive substantial attention. Moreover, high school students should assess America's political, military, and diplomatic challenges on their classroom essays. The committee of examiners believes that these topics should be a primary focus of a college-level survey. AP students who are well versed in politics, diplomacy, and military history will receive instruction consistent with college-level courses and will find many choices on the free response essay section of the AP test as well.

The findings also indicate that the new social history of the last 20 years has entered the content of the essay selections. The committee of examiners increasingly included questions on women, African Americans, and American Indians on the test. Although the number of questions varied from time to time, students could regularly count on seeing this category represented on the test.

These topics must be integrated into the course materials, and students should think and write about minority contributions to American development. Our society has become increasingly aware of the need to reflect our culturally diverse population in the mainstream of American life. As part of this process, historians have broadened their writing to include people who in the past were powerless and ignored. The increased percentage of questions about minority groups on the AP exam reflects this commitment to an inclusive view of American history.

For AP teachers, the inclusion is not only a fairness issue. With student performance on the examination in the forefront of most teachers' minds, they can improve their instruction and possibly raise student achievement by expanding the curriculum to recognize the contributions of women, African Americans, and American Indians.

Questions on economics and business were also important to the committee of examiners over the last three decades. However, although this category consistently accounted for 16-20 percent of the essay choices, it receives little attention in AP history courses. Teachers often overlook or avoid the economic development of the United States because they are uncomfortable dealing with fiscal or monetary issues. In other cases, instructors may believe their students cannot grasp the technical intricacies of tariff and banking problems.

Over the last 30 years, however, historians have tapped disciplines such as economics to deepen our understanding of American development. The expansion of economic/business essay questions reflects this increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the study of U.S. history. High school instructors who acknowledge this shift and expand their teaching to include economics will provide a relevant historical education and enhance their students' preparation for the AP test.

Influence of the Test Committee
Certainly the membership of the six-person test committee affects the types of questions appearing on the test, and may account for some of the fluctuation in the selection of questions. The College Board appoints members to single year terms, but normally reappoints them for three successive years. Through this process, the College Board promotes both continuity and change in the test's construction. As advocates of a specific category of essay come and go, the composition of the examination is likely to change briefly, but lasting modification occurs only if the committee membership establishes a consensus over a period of years.

This fluctuation may explain the uneven appearance of intellectual/cultural questions on the test. The category had bursts of popularity that were not found among the other types of questions (Figure 3). Proponents of those questions may have found support for this category during their tenure on the committee. Yet, as they left, the number of questions fell back to previous percentage levels.

Overall, the committee of examiners did not believe a strong link between history and the arts was necessary in the survey course. Rather, within the crowded history curriculum, they assigned arts and literature marginal importance. As a practical matter, AP teachers might limit the study of the arts in their courses. Such a decision would not compromise the integrity of the survey nor restrict greatly students' choices of essays on the AP test.

Furthermore, the committee deemed immigration issues and historiography less important than other topics of study. It appears that, in part, questions about African Americans and women replaced those involving immigration. The committee also apparently believed that, along with art and literature, the survey was not an appropriate place for an in-depth study of historiography. Although the exact dynamics of the committee's decisions are murky, the composition of the essay section suggests these two categories had relatively less significance in the minds of the committee over the period of investigation.

Essay choices appearing on the AP examination in the last three decades have been relatively stable. The selections concerned political, military, and diplomatic issues with growing attention to social and economic history. Overall, the choices reflected both tradition and change in the college survey course. Moreover, the test committee, through its selection, sent a clear message to teachers: no short cuts are available to success on the AP essay section.

Neither teachers nor students can easily anticipate specific essays on the examination. Focusing on a few selected topics just prior to the test will not help students. Rather, they can expect a broad menu of choices that require a firm grounding in the basic content of United States history. This is the goal of the testing program and the likely circumstances students will confront when they open the essay section of the AP United States history examination.

AP Year-Book: Challenging Students to Reach for Excellence. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1992.
A Student Guide to the AP U.S. History Course and Examination. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1992.
Henry, Michael S. "Advanced Placement U.S. History: What Happens After the Examination?" The Social Studies 82 (May/June 1991): 94-96.
-----. "The Intellectual Origins and Impact of the Document-Based Question." American Historical Association Perspectives 24 (February 1986): 14-16.
Rothschild, Eric. Teacher's Guide to Advanced Placement (AP) Courses in United States History. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1991.
Michael S. Henry is an Advanced Placement history teacher at Bowie High School, Prince George's County, Maryland.