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Despite the recent fallout over new guidelines for Advanced Placement U.S. History, the College Board is making similar changes to most science and history AP courses in an effort to emphasize critical thinking.

The College Board is in the process of retooling many of its 36 courses to more align with what it sees as meeting the needs of today’s rigorous college instruction. The new courses – from Art History to Physics — will cover fewer topics and aim to address charges that the old courses prized rote memorization over imaginative thinking.

New AP courses

For the first time new AP course descriptions will specifically outline broad concepts that teachers must impart to students. In the past these guides were essentially just lists of suggested topics.

Old Art History

A table determined how much time should be spent on three topics: Thirty percent on European art from the time of ancient Greece through the Gothic Era, 50 percent on Western art from the Renaissance through the present and 20 percent on art outside of the European tradition.

New Art History

Now a 150-page outline asks students to grapple with three big ideas: “Artists manipulate materials and ideas to create an aesthetic object, act or event,” “art making is shaped by tradition and change,” and “interpretations of art are variable.”

Old Biology

Presented students with a list of eight topics – which included “Evolution,” “Energy Transfer,” and “Science as a Process.” It included a list of 12 recommended experiments.

New Biology

Four big ideas replace the list, starting with, “Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.” The new guide only suggests teachers do eight experiments.

New AP Biology guides went into effect two years ago and new frameworks for the program’s four physics courses started this fall. The new AP European History and AP Art History courses begin next year.

But critics are leery of a “shift” in the AP program that embraces Common Core Standards, a set of English and math standards adopted by more than 40 states. These standards were promoted by the Obama administration in response to the outcry over current state standardized tests that rely on memorizing facts. Some parents, school administrators and local elected officials worry that they will lose control over what is taught in their schools. Texas, home to the second highest number of AP exam takers in the country, has outright banned Common Core.

Related: Is the new AP U.S. History really anti-American?

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars – a non-profit that seeks to counter a perceived liberal bias in academia – said he has not seen any of the other courses but was all-to-familiar with the new AP U.S. History curriculum. If they are similar, Wood said “they reflect a shift at the College Board … [the old] list of topics were sufficient and left high school teachers the flexibility to imagine a real course around these materials.”

It now seems the board doesn’t trust teachers to “balance abstract and critical thinking with teaching empirical content,” said Wood, who taught in the Anthropology Department at Boston University. “This has a lot to do with the standardization push … there is this thought that unless everyone is doing it the same way it isn’t any good.”

The prize for students at the end of an AP class is the chance to take an exam that, if they score high enough, could get them college credits or allow them to skip introductory courses at some colleges. Last year, before the Common Core controversy hit its current fever pitch, the College Board discussed the connection between Common Core and the AP revamp.

“We are really excited that the Common Core standards ask teachers to do a few things very well,” said Trevor Packer, College Board’s Senior Vice President in charge of AP and Instruction. “We have been making similar changes in AP through a parallel process – the redesign of AP science and history courses that do the same thing.”

Related: More teachers are souring on Common Core, finds one survey

The College Board, a non-profit company that also administers the SAT, has been revising the AP program since 2007. But the calls to revamp the program amplified in 2013 when professors at Dartmouth College conducted an experiment testing whether the courses were really college level.

Dartmouth’s Psychology Department gave more than 100 students who received a perfect five out of five score on the AP Psychology exam, a condensed version of the school’s final for its introductory psychology course – 90 percent failed.

The college didn’t stand by the experiment as a rigorous scientific study of whether AP courses were truly comparable to college courses, but the school no longer gives students credit for high scores on any of the AP exams.

AP science and history courses have seen the biggest changes, but Parker says that Common Core also directly affects how AP math and English courses are taught.

“Common Core will prove to be excellent preparation for AP English,” Parker said last year. But AP math will see bigger changes as schools implement the Common Core, he predicted.

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  1. Unless you could show that most college students from other universities who got an “A” in their intro course could get a high score on the final for the Dartmouth Introductory Psychology exam (or, heck, use students at Dartmouth who took the course from a different professor) , the fact that 90% of the 100 students failed the exam means nothing. Different professors emphasize different things. When you take a class with a particular professor you generally know what you need to prepare and the final reflects the professor and what s/he taught. The AP exams, on the other hand, are intentionally written to cover a wide range of course preparation and teachers’ preparation (since there is no definitive guide — other than AP — as to “what the first year psychology student needs to know”).

  2. The problem is not “that unless everyone is doing it the same way it isn’t any good.” The problem is that unless everyone is doing it the same way it may not really be equivalent. At the college where I work, we are taking a closer look at how much credit we give for AP exam scores, whether students should be allowed to use that credit to skip 100-level classes, and how comparable students’ experience is when they have taken the classes in different school districts. In that regard, more stringent guidelines regarding what students should study, what skills they should develop, and what they can be expected to know would be very helpful. This is especially crucial in science classes, where very specific content serves as the foundation for later content.

  3. The Dartmouth “experiment” should also have given the AP exam to its students who earned an A, and my guess is that 90% of those students would not have passed the AP Exam.

  4. So the non-profit company, College Board, in administering the AP exams, dictates what our students are learning in AP courses?

  5. There is a typo in your article. Seems ironic since the post scrutinizes education.
    Typo: “All-too-familiar”

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