AP African American History and the Minority Question in History

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed offers a fascinating article about an effort to create AP courses in African American history, and the chilly reception it received from the College Board and university administrators. Here at the AHA we don’t have enough information to assess the merits of the proposal, but the article hones in on some really intriguing ancillary questions for the discipline as a whole. Jaschik asks:

Is [the AP Program’s] purpose to help students place out of introductory courses or to encourage them to study with greater rigor in high school (or both)? Why do some AP programs attract more members of certain ethnic or racial groups than others? Why are black students significantly less likely than the population as a whole to take AP courses? With many competitive colleges expecting applicants to have AP courses on their transcripts, should the College Board be trying new strategies to get more black students involved in the program?

The first question raises an interesting issue for the entire discipline of history: is it in our best interest to see large and growing numbers of students take the AP exam? Trevor Packer at the College Board is quoted as saying that college administrators “don’t want an exemption test for freshmen to skip [African American history] courses” because “African American history is typically taught by a tenure-track professor… and that it is frequently the only African American history course a college student takes.”

That seems to beg the question about whether it is in the interest of the larger discipline of history to encourage an “exemption test” allowing students to place out of intro U.S. or world history courses, which might be the only “history course a college student takes.” As a former AP student and someone who has done a fair amount of work with folks at the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, I tend to think of the AP program as a positive way of enriching the high school study of history. They go through a lot of effort to assure that the courses in the program truly merit the label “advanced” and align well with the introductory history courses at the colleges. But until I read Packer’s comments, I never really thought about how the program affects history teaching at the college level.

That said, I am not sure many faculty at four-year colleges would regret the loss of students in introductory history classes to the AP tests. Relatively few tenure-track faculty actually teach introductory history courses at the college level. In the analysis we did for the Coalition on the Academic Workforce a few years ago, less than half of the instructional staff for introductory history courses were employed full-time on the tenure track. That would certainly suggest the faculty who run most history departments do not see much value in the introductory course at the college level.

Aside from raising issues about the discipline’s employment practices, Jaschik’s article also poses the question about encouraging African American students to take history courses. An important piece of evidence encouraging the idea of an AP African American history course is data from the College Board showing that significantly fewer racial minorities take AP history courses. A chart in the article shows history as the only field where 64 percent or more of the students taking an AP test were white (with 64.2 percent of the students taking U.S. history exams and 67.9 percent of the students take European history exams).

But just glancing at those proportions seems to raise a separate question about the students earning degrees at the college level. Recent data on students receiving degrees in history show that history at the college level is significantly less diverse than other disciplines. And when compared to the proportions taking AP history exams, the proportions seem even smaller (Figure 1). This raises an interesting question about why students earning history degrees seem even less diverse than students taking the AP exams.

Figure 1: Race/Ethnicity of Students Taking AP History Exams in 2006 and Receiving History Bachelor's Degrees in 2004-05

Admittedly, questions about who will be teaching introductory courses at the college level and the representativeness of students graduating from the discipline are rather far afield from the central issue in Jaschik’s article. But the article provides a useful vantage point for thinking about some of the hidden assumptions in the discipline.

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  1. Moya Hansen

    I am a curator at the Colorado Historical Society and spent some time in graduate school researching the history of Colorado’s (specifically Denver’s) African American population. I have wondered if African American students’ lack of interest in their history stems from the fact that historians have yet to put it in the context of our country’s development. This is particularly true when it comes to settling the West. Aside from the Civil War, Black history is taught as a separate subject rather than part and parcel of our country’s history. In particular, I see that while many factors affected the development of the West, few have truly examined the impact of the Reconstuction era on state constitutions, jobs, land disbursement, entrepreneurial activities, and the later Civil Rights movements. Does black history need to be taught as a separate subject or could we all benefit from a more thoughtful integration of the topic as part of our nation’s history? Do students—black, white, hispanic, et.al.—appreciate the implications for every citizen of what Gunnar Myrdal termed “An American Dilemma”?

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