Propose Different Interpretations

The AP World History exam is next week. I love this test. It’s so hard and assesses really interesting aspects of a student’s ability to think historically. Over the past year I’ve watched our tenth graders and their two incredible APWH teachers grow a ton as historians. While much of our efforts are spent on the larger tasks, particularly the DBQ, the secondary source/historical argumentation short answer question may be the most vexing; it’s not a huge portion of the points on the exam, but absent a strong strategy to attack it, students are going to get almost no points. For those of you not familiar with the question style, it’s ultimately a pair of passages by two historians with conflicting views on a topic OR a single passage by a historian expressing a nuanced historical argument. Here is one of the few publicly available examples from the College Board:


On our most recent quarterly exam around 20% of students got one out of three points and fewer than 5% answered part c correctly. Some of the most common trends: vague descriptions of Cold War events, unclear sentences (“One piece of evidence that supports this is . . . “), or quoting “evidence” from the passage to explain the author’s argument. C was often total gibberish.

Of all the changes to the AP history exam, this strikes me as one of the most interesting, important, and ultimately frustrating. Interesting, as the question explores the nature of what historians ultimately do in their writing. Important, as it captures an incredibly important (and difficult) skill. Frustrating, in that in many ways this is first a reading comprehension question, then a historical knowledge question. As the Chief Reader report for the 2017 exam noted, these questions force students to comprehend a passage and then apply their knowledge in a historically meaningful way across several time periods. Additionally, the College Board has continued to update the language of the questions moving away from “identify and explain” to “provide one piece of evidence”.

The first problem our staff faced was deciding on a plan of attack for students to tackle these questions. Our Pre-AP World History teacher worked on a number of approaches and settled on one that our APWH classes eventually adopted. We arrived at it by having each teacher prepare an exemplar in preparation for a data meeting, compared our exemplars, and then re-traced our steps to come up with a system. An example of a teacher exemplar of the marked up passage captures the first few steps:


First, read and annotate the questions to identify the ultimate tasks.

Second, read and annotate the source line to the document/documents focusing on contextualization and point of view (when was it written, what was going on at the time, who wrote it, what is it, etc . . . ). Note the annotation at the top “Recent, secondary source”.

Third, read and annotate the passages for author’s claim. Here you can see margin notes that capture claims and sub-claims throughout both passages (e.g., “CW was unavoidable”).

Fourth, brainstorm your evidence. “westward expansion, annexation of the Philippines”.

Finally, write your responses:


We often tell students that in class (and at home) we have the luxury of time and therefore we need to “see your thinking” in the annotations. Given the time adjustments to the APWH exam, I think these steps are reasonable. However, as our Dean of Curriculum pointed out recently when reading another example released by the College Board, this is a close reading exercise. If you mis-read one key sentence in the time crunch there is simply no way you can answer the question accurately.

As for the quality of the teacher exemplar written responses, I don’t know. I do not feel that the Chief Reader report commentary really applies the this specific type of question. I’m not sure I really understand what question c is asking – I think it’s asking about the authors’ respective points of view, as addressed by the exemplar responses analysis that one author focuses on “larger and longer global process”.

I know there are a lot of amazing AP World History teachers out there who spend a lot of time thinking about these questions – what do you think of the steps? The quality of the responses? Comment away.

PS – today is my last day of paternity leave. I’ve had a few drafts of this post floating around for awhile, but figured if I didn’t write it tonight, it was never getting written. Blame the typos on the five week old asleep down the hall.

This entry was posted in APWH, Assessment, History, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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