Why the College Board watered-down its new course on Black history
Yesterday was the first day of Black History Month. The College Board marked the occasion by releasing a revised framework for its new Advanced Placement (AP) course for African American Studies. The new version of the course, however, appears designed to mollify right-wing criticism.
The College Board — the nonprofit group responsible for administering SATs and AP classes — has been working on developing an AP African American Studies course for more than a decade. According to the organization’s website, the course aims to “explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.”
Since the College Board began piloting AP African American Studies last year, right-wing pundits have relentlessly attacked the curriculum. Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) announced his state would prohibit public high school students from taking the course. AP African American Studies is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” the DeSantis administration said in a January 12 letter to the College Board. DeSantis accused the College Board of pushing a “political agenda” because it touched on topics like queer studies and reparations.
Days later, the College Board announced that it would release “the official framework” for AP African American Studies on February 1, and noted that there would be changes. The DeSantis administration claimed the announcement as a victory. “We are glad the College Board has recognized that the originally submitted course curriculum is problematic, and we are encouraged to see the College Board express a willingness to amend,” Alex Lanfranconi, director of communications for the Florida Department of Education, told Politico.
The College Board’s revisions address nearly all of the objections raised by the DeSantis administration. The new curriculum, for instance, eliminates lessons on Black Lives Matter, the case for reparations, and queer studies — all topics listed as “concerns” by DeSantis officials. Previously a required part of the course framework, these topics now appear in a list of suggested research topics for students that “can be refined by states and districts.”
In the introduction to the revised framework, the College Board explains it “opposes indoctrination” and notes that "AP students are not required to feel certain ways about themselves or the course content” — echoing talking points used by DeSantis and other conservatives.
Additionally, none of the individuals identified as problematic by DeSantis’ administration made the final cut. Highly respected scholars like Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelley, bell hooks, whose works were included in the pilot framework, were eliminated by the College Board in the new curriculum. The revised framework also expunges scholars associated with Critical Race Theory, including Kimberlé Crenshaw. A section initially titled, "The Black feminist movement, womanism and intersectionality,” was revised to, "Black women’s voices in society and leadership." The term "intersectionality" was coined by Crenshaw.
In a press release, the College Board insisted that any suggestion that politics played a role in the revisions is "a gross misrepresentation of the content of the course and the process by which it was developed." As proof, the College Board said "that the core revisions were substantially complete — including the removal of all secondary sources — by December 22, weeks before Florida’s objections were shared." This proves, according to College Board CEO David Coleman, that the revisions were made solely in response to "feedback from professors and students and teachers."
But the College Board's timeline is not exculpatory. Right-wing criticism of the course reached a fevered pitch long before December 22, 2022. The National Review, a conservative publication closely aligned with DeSantis, published an article in September 2022, blasting the pilot course as a "sweeping effort to infuse leftist radicalism into America’s K–12 curriculum." The course, according to the article, runs "afoul of the new state laws barring CRT." And the materials call for "a socialist transformation of America, inspired by African Americans and infused with their cultural style." All the criticisms that DeSantis levied in January were all introduced by the National Review in September.
When a member of the development committee for the course’s framework was asked by NBC News to give examples of revisions that “were not related to the items of concern expressed by Florida officials,” the member said “she was unable to provide any.”
Show me the money
In 2019, the College Board made over $1.1 billion dollars in revenue, according to documents filed with the IRS. Almost half of this revenue came from “AP and Instruction,” and 40% came from “assessments” like SAT exams.
In 2020, revenue shrunk to $800 million dollars. “AP and Instruction” now constituted the majority of revenue, but “assessments” plummeted by almost half. The reason for this sharp decline is that since the pandemic many universities and colleges have implemented “test-optional” policies. Compared to 2019, when 55% of colleges required test scores, only 4 percent of schools had a testing requirement this past fall. SAT exams are becoming less important.
As revenue declined, compensation for its top executive increased. Coleman, its CEO, took home more than $2.5 million in compensation in 2020 — over a million more than he had received in 2019. The College Board is technically a non-profit.
For the College Board, right-wing criticism of the AP African American Studies course presents a financial threat. It needs more students than ever to enroll in AP courses. But at least 18 states have passed legislation limiting or banning the study of Critical Race Theory. Republican Governors in Florida and Arkansas were already planning to ban the AP course. If other Republican Governors who have used CRT and other cultural issues as a political cudgel followed suit, the course would be much less profitable.
Scholars criticize efforts to sanitize Black history
Scholars of African American history across the country have also condemned DeSantis’ objection to the material included in the original course. On January 31, “nearly 600 African American Studies faculty” from colleges and universities across the country also signed a letter protesting DeSantis banning the course in Florida.
The letter calls DeSantis’ rejection “censorship and a frontal attack on academic freedom,” stating that it is an effort to “delegitimize the AP’s pilot curriculum in African American Studies,” “intimidate the College Board into appeasement and wholesale revisions,” and “deny the young citizens of his state the world-class education to which they have a right.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and the Executive Director at the African American Policy Forum, told the New York Times that she “was stunned when she saw that the Florida Department of Education had targeted topics related to intersectionality, Black feminism and queer theory,” adding that, “[African American history] has to tell the story of all of us.”
Upon hearing that the College Board knuckled under to right wing bullying from a racist with presidential aspirations, I asked myself - what other courses have been changed/sanitized to address or avoid criticism from the right wing? And since the quick cave on this shows that the College Board is easily cowed, what value do any AP courses have as replacements for college level work? And I now fully understand why so many top notch colleges and universities are so selective in the APs they accept...and why the IB (International Baccalaureate) has become the gold standard for secondary education, supplanting the AP.
Another fine and detailed exposé. The financials indicate what is actually happening, whereas most generalized news coverage doesn’t mention it.