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History department implements new AP credit policy

When the history department did an about-face last year and decided to accept Advanced Placement credits toward its major requirements, it abandoned a policy shared by much of the humanities and social sciences and, in effect, found itself aligned with many natural science departments.

The history department now counts a 4 or 5 on an AP history test toward meeting its minimum requirement of 10 history credits for a major. The department's goal was to acknowledge the work of students and to encourage qualified potential majors to continue with history, even as a double major, said history Director of Undergraduate Studies Sydney Nathans.

Nathans said the decision was influenced by comparable history programs at other schools, such as Princeton and Columbia universities, that accept the credit.

"In the end, we decided that [Duke departments] were not the standard we were going to be looking at to decide whether we were or were not out of line," he said.

The decision puts the history department in a nearly unique position among the University's liberal arts departments. Some departments, such as economics and some foreign language programs, accept AP scores to satisfy prerequisites that are actually required for a degree.

English, political science and most other departments in the humanities and social sciences do not accept AP credit or only accept it to meet unrequired prerequisites.

"AP classes, rigorous as they may be, do not compare to a university seminar," said English Associate Professor of the Practice Melissa Malouf, who said she was surprised by the history department's decision.

Peter Fish, acting director of undergraduate studies in political science, said the inherent variability of the tests make them unsatisfactory substitutes for political science courses.

"Our view is that content changes from year to year," Fish said. "The test would change as the composition of the [Educational Testing Service] committee changes."

Most natural science departments, including biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, accept AP credit toward major requirements or prerequisites, which are often required. In the physics department, for example, if a student shows strong performance on several AP exams and a short follow-up exam, the 12 courses required for the major could be reduced.

"When we give a student a physics major, what we are certifying is that they have achieved a certain mastery of physics," said Joshua Socolar, director of undergraduate studies in physics. "It doesn't matter where they take the courses."

Though Nathans said history courses at the University are not interchangeable with those at the high school level, he said conversations with students and professors led him to conclude that a high score on the AP test fairly reflected the historical skills necessary to succeed beyond the introductory level.

"We have had professors who have graded those tests, who felt like they were creditable exams and the essays were good," he said. "The people who have taken Advanced Placement courses in history have done creditable work and are highly motivated."

There is precedent for accepting AP credits in the history department. Until the department revised its policy eight years ago, students could apply up to two AP credits toward the major requirements.

Nathans said the decision was made to ban the AP credits because the department was trying to diversify and teach a greater variety of non-Western courses. The only AP history tests are for U.S. history and European history, which further reinforced the Western emphasis of the curriculum.

With the diversity of the department firmly entrenched, Nathans said, the time was right to open up the department.


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