The Controversy Over Just How Much History AP World History Should Cover

The College Board recently announced that it will no longer test students on the thousands of years that predated European colonialism.

The Maya Civilization, which built the pre-Colombian city of Chichen Itza (shown here), could be among the many elements removed from the AP World History curriculum.  (Victor Ruiz Garcia / Reuters )

Like any Advanced Placement course, AP World History is intense, requiring students to absorb lots of sophisticated, detail-laden information in a relatively short amount of time: usually, a single year of high school. Yet AP World, as it is colloquially called, is a special breed of intense. The time span that the course’s curriculum covers is as expansive as its geographic focus: The material includes history starting around 8,000 B.C. and ends in the present—more than 10,000 revolutions around the sun later. This content, which the curriculum divides into six periods, is typically covered over the course of two sequential college classes.

Now the College Board, the nonprofit testing company that runs (and earns close to half its annual revenue from) the AP program, has decided that the course as it stands is, in fact, too intense. As of the 2019–20 school year, the organization will administer an AP World exam that’s significantly narrower in scope, assessing content only from 1450 A.D. on. The organization plans to funnel the remaining 9,000-plus years of history into its brand-new Pre–AP World History and Geography curriculum, part of a suite of pre-AP classes that are designed to prepare all students for college and will be launched this fall. In rationalizing the AP World changes, the College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg cited survey and performance data suggesting that too many students and teachers drown in the information overload and ultimately fail to gain value from the course. What’s more, Goldberg said, most colleges reward the small minority of students who score well enough on the exam with credit for a single semester-long course—typically one that covers post-1450-A.D. history.

But an emerging group of teachers and students is appalled by the prospective shift, and in recent days has set out to stop it. Moving all of the pre-1450 A.D. history to another course, they contend, will do little to ensure that that part of the human story—which one AP World teacher in Michigan, Tyler George, described to me as “some of the most rich, diverse content of the entire curriculum”—remains a priority.

Critics have been voicing their concerns via in-person forums and social-media platforms. For example, a student-led petition calling on Trevor Packer, the head of the AP program, to retract the decision, had as of Wednesday well surpassed its original 5,000-signature goal. The petition emphasizes that the decision “removes HUGE amounts of history”—eras that, while accounting for only40 percent of AP World’s total current course work, comprise some 95 percent of human history since the development of agriculture and set the trajectories of civilizations for thousands of years to come. That history includes the technological advancements and environmental transformation that arose during humans’ migration from Africa to regions around the world; the rise of the Persian empire, the Qin dynasty, Teotihuacan in modern-day Mexico, and the Puebloan People in what today is the southwestern U.S.; and the birth of some of the world’s major religions, including Confucianism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

Dylan Black, the New Jersey high-school student who created the online petition, worries that the change threatens to further entrench in Americans’ minds a Eurocentric worldview. He noted in an email that in his AP World class he learned about indigenous populations throughout the Americas before studying the conquest of those empires by countries like Spain. “Without this previous knowledge of American civilizations,” he said, “it would seem like nobody was there until Europe showed up.”

Such sentiments square with those expressed by numerous educators, many of whom are campaigning to at the very least salvage the curriculum’s third period, which encompasses the nearly nine centuries leading up to 1450 A.D.—a time period during which human networks within and across regions flourished and deepened. This class “is probably the only real chance [high-school students] are going to get to learn the African and American and Asian history before European colonization,” said Amanda DoAmaral, a former AP World History teacher of Brazilian and Jewish descent who, at a recent open forum for teachers in Salt Lake City, got into a testy exchange with Packer about the College Board’s values. “It’s so cool for students to learn [the third period] because it’s the one time in history that Europe wasn’t the big dog—it was in the Dark Ages while the rest of the world was innovating.”

In whittling the course down to a relatively minuscule phase of humanity’s existence, critics like DoAmaral argue, the College Board is effectively threatening to deprive kids of the insight that can be drawn from the thousands of years of human experience that predated the era of Euro and Anglo dominance. “In a world that is fueled by quick reactions on social media, biased news (in all directions), and people responding on passion rather than facts, AP World History is needed more than ever,” said George, the Michigan teacher. Students, he said, would benefit from understanding the history of the world’s populations before Europeans’ so-called discovery of their lands—that those populations’ narratives began far before they were exploited and depleted by colonial powers.

In response to the backlash, Packer announced last Thursday that while the College Board still intends to narrow the exam’s scope, it will consult with experts in considering “a coherent inclusion of essential concepts from period 3.” The College Board will report on its game plan in mid-July. Some observers applaud the attempt at compromise: The George Mason University provost and history professor Peter Stearns, for example, in a blog post Tuesday commended the College Board for responding with “constructive flexibility” by making room “for a real unit on key developments in the centuries before 1450.”

Still, teachers and students told me that while they appreciate the gesture, Packer’s reassurance is too vague—and his emphasis on essential concepts too simplistic—to make them optimistic that students will still learn the deeper historical roots of the modern world. As Alexander Ledford, an AP World History teacher in Florida, wrote to me, “It is not the point of this class to delve deeply into any one history, but to show how the common history of the world came about.”

Meanwhile, critics of the change aren’t convinced that relegating early world history to the pre-AP course will do much to preserve that instruction—in part because the College Board will charge schools an additional, possibly cost-prohibitive fee to offer the pre-AP course and in part because that intro class won’t be a prerequisite for the regular AP course and will not come with a high-stakes (and valuable) exam. Because the prospect of a resume-boosting high test score and the concomitant college credit is a major incentive for taking AP World, fewer students may seek out the pre-AP course.

And as George, the Michigan teacher, points out, the exclusion of pre-1450-A.D. material from the AP exam could discourage even the most dedicated teachers from prioritizing that material in class. “How can we allocate the amount of time that periods one to three require if it will not be tested?” he asked. “We can’t.”