AP Scores Soar Across History Department

The History Department produced some of the highest AP scores in the country this summer all thanks to an innovative, flexible curriculum that encourages students to think like historians.
West Roxbury, Mass.— AP history test scores at Catholic Memorial School ranked among the highest in the nation this summer.

According to score reports from the College Board, juniors taking AP U.S. History recorded a 94.4-percent pass rate and sophomores taking AP European History recorded a 95-percent pass rate, far surpassing the national pass rates of 58.5-percent and 59.3-percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, seniors who took the AP Comparative Government exam recorded a pass rate of 82.4-percent, a rate 10-percent higher than the global average. Over the past three years, CM students have recorded an average pass rate of over 90-percent on the exam.

In light of these impressive scores, History Department Chair Mr. Vincent Bradley believes the secret to the History Department’s AP success lies not in test prep or flashcards, but rather in the way all History Department faculty members encourage an interest in history and train students to think like historians.

I tell students all the time that I would teach the course in a very similar way even if it weren’t an AP course,” Mr. Bradley said.

We really try to emphasize a love of history, exploration of democracy and how that has been implemented, or denied, in our history, and how our conception and understanding of democratic ideals continues to change as we seek a a more perfect union, as [Abraham] Lincoln once said."

Simply put, Mr. Bradley expects every student to leave a CM history course with a deep-rooted appreciation for the subject matter taught. Keeping this goal in mind, history faculty design curriculum with the intention of engaging students with hands-on, active lesson plans and resources. Such lesson plans and resources, Mr. Bradley says, teach students how to develop a well-thought-out thesis, think critically, and conduct research.

The support from [Mr.] Bradley, our department head, has been outstanding,” said Mr. Peter Hill, a faculty member in the History Department.

He always provides the resources, whether it be professional development, books, or words of wisdom that I need. Most of all, his AP U.S. History class, pedagogy, and character set a high standard that I can follow to improve my own class and instructional practices.”

In his AP Comparative Government class, Mr. Hill has followed Mr. Bradley’s lead by implementing an entirely new way of teaching the course.

According to Mr. Hill, most teachers teach AP Comparative Government with either a thematic approach or “country-by-country” approach. But, instead of teaching a unit on democracy and then theocracy, or on the United Kingdom and then Russia, Mr. Hill has blended both approaches together.

This past spring, Mr. Hill taught the course by grouping key terms for a given unit under a specific theme. He would ask his students to debate the merits of each term and ask them to support their arguments using research from specific case studies of countries.

This approach, he said, kept his students engaged in the material amid CM’s transition to online learning, generating overwhelmingly positive results.

I was proud of those guys who had never taken an AP test before and passed,” Mr. Hill said.

“This course is difficult and involves concepts and cultures that they don’t normally talk about throughout the school year.”

According to Mr. Hill, five students who had never taken an AP history course at CM all passed with an average score of a 4.4.

In his AP U.S. History course, Mr. Bradley uses his Harvard Case Method Project in a similarly engaging fashion.

Founded by Harvard Business School professor David Moss, the Case Method Project instructs students to explore a contingency of history, to consider where historical narratives diverge, and to ask good questions when preparing to debate the merits of each case in a class discussion.

“It’s taking that Harvard Business School model of teaching and applying it to history,” Mr. Bradley said.

“The students are responsible for studying the case and then coming to class prepared to discuss it. It’s encouraging the students to analyze facts and create their own, original arguments.”

Mr. Bradley says the Case Method Project provides students with rigorous, college level historical sources from leading historians such as Harvard’s David Moss  who offer different perspectives on a distinct historical event. These events often include Madison’s Federal Negative, the U.S. Constitution, Lincoln and Fort Sumter, and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The case studies helped me think about the lessons in a different light than the textbooks ever could have,” said William Bowman, a rising senior who took Mr. Bradley’s class last year.

“I also really thought the [in-class] discussions that followed each case study helped me because I got to hear my classmates’ views on what we read and hear a different side to the argument.”

In addition to this project, students in AP U.S. History read academic historians, such as Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, and Gordon Wood. With each reading, Mr. Bradley instructed students to consider a historical author’s point of view, or identify a bias, and evaluate the evidence and arguments used to reconstruct the past—all necessary skills for a high-performing AP history test taker.

The resources undoubtedly helped. According to Mr. Bradley, 83-percent of AP U.S. History students received a score of a 4 or 5 this past year. Even more impressive: 56-percent of his class earned a perfect score.

“Reading those historical accounts makes it a college class in high school, which is what an AP class should be,” Mr. Bradley said.

Faculty throughout the History Department have noticed the results and have followed suit. Mr. Tom Jordan and Mr. Matt Callahan have required their College Prep and Honors U.S. History courses to incorporate those same resources into their respective curriculums.

To further supplement the case studies, all U.S. History faculty members will assign active, hands-on projects that go beyond the classroom and reinforce the lessons and theories taught in class.

Last year, for example, every U.S. History student visited the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. There, they simulated the U.S. experience of mobilizing for World War I by role-playing as a U.S. Senator.

Such an experience, Mr. Bradley says, allows all junior U.S. History students, not just a few, to apply historical lessons and concepts from the past and apply them to today’s world.

It’s always my hope that students are able see the continuities and discontinuities in cases when major events happen,” Mr. Bradley said.

“That’s the strength of a curriculum like this. The students make those connections and really engage with the material. That way, they see history as a large conversation across time.” 

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Catholic Memorial, the Christian Brothers School of Boston, prepares boys for college, manhood and a world full of unknown challenges, ambiguity and complex problems and the importance of relationships.

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