This year the College Board is being forced to rethink its definition of “rigor.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, AP exams will be given online for students to take at home, and they will be forty-five minute open note tests. The history exams will be a single document-based question (DBQ), and a shortened one at that. On the full World History AP exam, the DBQ takes sixty minutes and counts for 25% of the test; a typical question has seven documents. This year’s DBQ will have five documents (to account for the forty-five minute time frame) and will be 100% of the test. 

So Why’d We Do All That Stuff, Anyway?

The College Board has made a tremendous push to reassure teachers and students that this year’s exam will be worthy of their efforts. They’ve got an impressive list of colleges and universities to commit to granting credit for this year’s results just as they have in the past, when students took the full exam. All of which causes me to ask: if a forty-five minute DBQ is really just as good as the three hour and fifteen minute full exam, why were we doing all that other stuff in the first place? 

Two Reasons

I think there are two answers to this question. The first answer is that the forty-five minute DBQ is not as good as the full exam at finding out what students can narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in world history. There’s no way a five document DBQ can give students the opportunity to demonstrate breadth of knowledge across the times and places covered in the AP World History course (or even the ⅔ of it that will be tested this year). Some students will succeed on this short DBQ while knowing a lot of world history that they won’t be tested on, some students will succeed on this short DBQ without knowing much more world history than what the documents reveal, and doubtless some students who know quite a bit of world history will not succeed on this DBQ. I think the College Board is doing the right thing here — I support their decision to test this year and to test in this manner — but I don’t believe that this exam will provide the same evaluation of an individual student’s learning of world history as a full exam would. 

The second answer to the question is that the College Board has always had to present its Advanced Placement courses as especially rigorous, and one way to do that is by giving tests that require students to remember a lot of stuff. In our own teaching and in our work with 4QM clients Gary and I think a lot about “rigor.” Everyone agrees that history lessons should have “rigor,” and that classes should be “rigorous.” AP classes typically assign many pages of textbook reading, provide long lists of “IDs” or “key terms,” and test students on all of it. That’s one kind of rigor, and we’re sympathetic to it. You can’t think about history that you don’t know, which is why the Four Question Method starts with Question One, “What Happened?” Students have to know that before they can explore any of the other questions responsibly. Content matters, and pretending that students can practice their thinking skills without a solid grounding in historical facts is progressivist piffle. 

Balanced 4QM Rigor

But I’m not confident that the full AP world history exam is a balanced test of historical knowledge and historical thinking. I’ve complained in a previous post about the College Board’s ambiguous free response questions, and I think there’s a case to be made that the exam as a whole does not ask students to narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in an optimal ratio. I’m not opposed to a rigorous course with a rigorous external exam to validate it. I’d just like to see “rigor” defined more carefully, and tested in a more balanced way.