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New AP exam gives world history some cachet

By Sara SteindorfStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2002

United States history usually attracts its share of the limelight as a school subject. Politically charged debates erupt over whose story is told; and how much patriotism should filter into class discussions is a perennial concern. Congress even weighs in, most recently by allocating some $150 million to boost the teaching of US history in schools.

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But what about its cousin, world history? Still in the shadows, in many cases.

When it comes to studying the world, "people just don't get so riled up if we, say, skip right over 14th-century west Africa," says Ross Dunn, a history professor at San Diego State University in California.

That's changing, however. During the past decade, schools have started to peer beyond the parochial perspective. Sept. 11, of course, accelerated the shift. And yesterday, the world-history movement achieved a milestone: Some 20,000 high-schoolers filled in bubbles and scribbled out essays for the debut of the world-history advanced-placement test.

The AP exams, administered by the New York-based College Board, have become an important ingredient in college admissions. For decades, they've been offered in US history and European history – not to mention more-esoteric subjects like French literature and Latin.

But now students have a chance to show off their knowledge of, say, Africa or Asia. It's an opportunity that has resulted from new directions in higher education, says Despina Danos, a representative for Educational Testing Service, which creates the tests.

"Just in the past decade or so, colleges started offering introductory courses in world history," she says.

"Before that they offered Western civilization ... and then started supplementing it with survey courses on Asia or Africa or Latin America."

During that time, a handful of PhD programs in world history also started up – and high schools started taking their cue. "People are finally realizing the importance of knowledge of world history in America's schools," says Dr. Dunn.

At the grade-school level, a 1994 movement for national standards in most subjects, though hotly debated at the time, resulted in many states designating more hours for the teaching of world history, Dunn says.

Beyond a more standardized curriculum, changes in the US population have paved the way for the new focus. "European history no longer reflects students' ancestry as much," says Patrick Manning, director of the World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston.

It hasn't been easy, however, to decide what to include in the subject's daunting span between Plato and NATO.

In Massachusetts, for instance, a group of educators and elected officials recently protested the removal of portions of African and Latin American history from the state's proposed curriculum standards for seventh-graders.

Barbara Brown, who works with teachers in a Boston University program that focuses on Africa's importance in world history, says the state's effort to streamline the subject makes it Eurocentric. "Now, students will first encounter Africans as slaves and Latin Americans as conquered," she says. "They're being taught that nothing of historical value happened in Africa or Latin America."