AP US Government & Politics (NSL) Redesigned: What You Need To Know

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Thinking of taking AP US Government – or AP NSL, as it’s known to MoCo students? Or are you already deep in the course and looking ahead to the AP exam? Either way, you probably have heard about the recent course redesign, and here’s what you need to know.

Unlike the recent redesign of APUSH and AP World History, the redesign of AP US Gov hasn’t been controversial – in large part because the changes amount to a tune-up rather than a rebuild. The goals of the redesign basically fall into two categories: to make the course more focused and more applied. 


The Overview

The content changes aim to allow teachers and students to go deeper into key topics, now organized under five Big Ideas: constitutionalism; liberty and order; civil participation in a representative democracy; competing policy-making interests; and methods of political analysis. The curriculum also prioritizes 24 key “foundational documents,” allowing students to better anticipate what they will be tested on.

The emphasis on applied learning moves students further away from rote memorization and towards skills that will be useful in college-level political science courses and as an engaged citizen. So NSL will now prioritize more analyzing and reasoning, more looking at causation, more comparing and contrasting, and more interpretation of qualitative and quantitative information (or, put another way, reading written texts as well as charts and graphs). 


So What Has Changed?

Getting down to nuts and bolts, here’s what’s new about AP US Gov/NSL: 

More Stimulus-Based Multiple-Choice Questions: In English, this means many more questions – often groups of 2-4 questions – where you’ll respond to a data table or graph, a political cartoon, a map, a historical image, a quotation, or some other source. Correspondingly, there are fewer (but not zero) multiple-choice questions where you’ll have to regurgitate the facts you have memorized.

Foundational Documents: Did your older brother or sister nearly cry as they tried to memorize 40 or 50 Supreme Court cases? (Or worse: last year, I had a student walk in with a handout his teacher had given him of 83 cases to memorize.) Now students have a far more manageable set of 15 SCOTUS cases and nine other key primary documents (including the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, several Federalist Papers, and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) to master.

Focused FRQs: Similarly, the free-response questions are now much more focused than they used to be – you no longer have to fear four basically random questions from anywhere in the entire course. Instead, you’ll see one concept application, one quantitative analysis, one SCOTUS case comparison, and one argument essay: 

  • Concept Application: You’ll be given a scenario – say, a controversy over health care costs – and you’ll have to respond with specific, relevant course content of political principles, institutions, processes, policies, or behaviors. In this case, that might include congressional power over commerce, the President’s ability to mobilize political opinion, or lobbying by the AARP or pharmaceutical companies.
  • Quantitative Analysis: Like the Concept Application essay, but with charts and graphs. You’ll be asked to make sense of quantitative data: for example, to identify a trend or pattern on state-by-state funding of public education, compare or contrast regions, and connect all that to federalism.
  • SCOTUS Comparison: You’ll be given a Supreme Court ruling from beyond the required cases you have to master, and you will have to compare it to a related case from the list of 15. This could involve something like a recent SCOTUS ruling on school prayer, where you would need to compare and contrast the decision with Engel v. Vitale. 
  • Argument Essay: Here, you will be asked to develop an argument in response to a broad question (topics could include something like the role of social media in politics, the Electoral College in modern society, congressional gridlock, the value of interest groups, or other issues relevant to today’s politics). Your argument will need to take a position and to draw upon at least one foundational document in supporting your thesis. You will also need to imagine a counterargument or alternative position, engage that, and explain why your point of view is correct.

Class Project: For the course (but not for the AP exam itself), you’ll now be required to complete a project that connects to the real-world issues you’re studying in class. The official guidelines are quite broad, but the requirements boil down to students 1) having to show their understanding of the methods of political researchers and policymakers and 2) having to communicate their findings in politically relevant forms – a position paper, an op-ed, a poster or brochure, a podcast, a multimedia project, or even a trip to lobby your local officials.


And What’s Still the Same?

The test format remains unchanged: 55 multiple-choice questions and four FRQs. The course content — those “Big Ideas” mentioned above — is tested on both halves of the exam. You still have to know your iron triangles; your amicus curiae from your writ of certiorari; open, closed, and blanket primaries; the differences between delegate, trustee, and politico models of representation; and which House of Congress has filibusters and in which House revenue bills originate. And seriously: know the Fourteenth Amendment. Really. I mean, yes, absolutely know the Bill of Rights, the Progressive Era and other Civil War Amendments, and a bunch of other Amendments. But you can count on being tested on the 14th’s provisions on due process and equal protection.


What Do I Need to Do On Exam Day?

So on Exam Day, keep your cool under pressure, rely on logic, and read critically: eliminate the implausible answers. Keep an eye out for those “ALL EXCEPT” questions. Check, on questions with charts and graphs, that the answer choices are in fact directly related to what the data specifically measures – there’s a good chance that all the answer choices will be true, but only one will actually match the charts or graphs. Be specific, with examples, on the FRQs. And when all else fails, one thing remains exactly the same as before: there’s a very good chance you’re being asked about either federalism or the separation of powers.


Need more help? Check out PrepMatters’ team of tutors who help students with AP US Government/NSL and Comparative Politics.