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College Board strips down AP curriculum for African American studies

Emmitt Glynn is shown teaching AP African American studies to a group of Baton Rouge Magnet High School students on Monday in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Magnet High School is one of 60 schools around the country testing the new course, which has gained national attention since it was banned in Florida.Stephen Smith/Associated Press

After heavy criticism from Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, the College Board released Wednesday an official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American studies — stripped of much of the subject matter that had angered the governor and other conservatives.

The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience, and Black feminism. It ushered out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum.

And it added something new: “Black conservatism” is now offered as an idea for a research project.

When it announced the AP course in August, the College Board clearly believed it was providing a class whose time had come, and it was celebrated by eminent scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard as an affirmation of the importance of African American studies. But the course, which is meant to be for all students of diverse backgrounds, quickly ran into a political buzz saw after an early draft leaked to conservative publications like The Florida Standard and National Review.

In January, DeSantis, who is expected to run for president, announced he would ban the curriculum, citing the draft version. State education officials said it was not historically accurate and violated state law that regulates how race-related issues are taught in public schools.

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The attack on the AP course turned out to be the prelude to a much larger agenda. On Tuesday, DeSantis unveiled a proposal to overhaul higher education that would eliminate what he called “ideological conformity” by, among other things, mandating courses in Western civilization.

In another red flag, the College Board faced the possibility of other opposition: More than two dozen states have adopted some sort of measure against critical race theory, according to a tracking project by the UCLA law school.

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David Coleman, the head of the College Board, said in an interview that the changes were all made for pedagogical reasons, not to bow to political pressure.

“At the College Board, we can’t look to statements of political leaders,” he said. The changes, he said, came from “the input of professors” and “long-standing AP principles.”

He said that during the initial test of the course this school year, the board received feedback that the secondary, more theoretical sources were “quite dense” and that students connected more with primary sources, which he said have always been the foundation of AP courses.

“We experimented with a lot of things including assigning secondary sources, and we found a lot of issues arose as we did,” Coleman said. “I think what is most surprising and powerful for most people is looking directly at people’s experience.”

The dispute over the AP course is about more than just the content of a high school class. Education is the center of much vitriolic partisan debate, and the College Board’s decision to try to build a curriculum covering one of the most charged subjects in the country — the history of race in America — may have all but guaranteed controversy. If anything, the arguments over the curriculum underscore the fact that the United States is a country that cannot agree on its own story, especially the complex history of Black Americans.

In light of the politics, the College Board seemed to opt out of the politics. In its revised 234-page curriculum framework, the content on Africa, slavery, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement remains largely the same. But the study of contemporary topics — including Black Lives Matter, incarceration, queer life, and the debate over reparations — is downgraded. The subjects are no longer part of the exam and are simply offered on a list of options for a required research project.

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And even that list, in a nod to local laws, “can be refined by local states and districts.”

The expunged writers and scholars include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia, which touts her work as “foundational in critical race theory”; Roderick Ferguson, a Yale professor who has written about queer social movements; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who has made the case for reparations for slavery. Gone, too, is bell hooks, the writer who shaped discussions about race, feminism, and class.

AP exams are deeply embedded in the US education system. Students take the courses and exams to show their academic prowess when applying to college. Most four-year colleges and universities grant college credit for students who score high enough on an AP exam. And more than 1 million public high school students graduating in 2021 took at least one AP exam.

More than 200 faculty members in African American studies condemned DeSantis’ interference in the AP course in a letter published in Medium on Tuesday. They accused him of censorship and of trying “to intimidate the College Board into appeasement.”

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AP exams have incited conflict before. A US history curriculum guide in 2014 had to be revised after it was attacked for calling Ronald Reagan “bellicose” toward the Soviet Union and giving more prominence to a Native American chief than to Ben Franklin.

Acceptance for the new curriculum is important to the College Board, a nonprofit, because AP courses are a major source of revenue. The Board took in more than $1 billion in program service revenue in 2019, of which more than $490 million came from “AP and Instruction,” according to its tax-exempt filing.