College Board details new AP African American studies class amid criticism over changes
The College Board on Wednesday released details of its first Advanced Placement class on African American studies for high school students, but the course has drawn criticism for changing lessons and texts related to key figures and topics, including the Black queer experience and feminism.
The course recently came under fire from some conservatives and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who responded to a draft version of the course by calling it “indoctrination” that pushed a political agenda — and said his state would ban the course unless changes were made.
In a statement Wednesday, the College Board said changes to the curriculum were made weeks before DeSantis’ objections and denied media reports that the course had been watered down in response to conservative political backlash. The board included in its statement excerpts of the curriculum, which include Black feminist movements and how Black lesbians had a role in developing alternatives to mainstream feminism.
The curriculum, a year in the making, was developed with input from hundreds of scholars and African American studies experts across the country, including California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond; Tiffany Barber, an assistant professor of African American art at UCLA; and educators at San Francisco State, the first university to introduce a department of Black studies in the late 1960s.
AP courses developed by the College Board, which also administers the SAT test, are rigorous university-level classes offered to high school students who typically can earn college credit after passing the exam. The board offers 39 AP classes on subjects including biology, chemistry, art history, English literature, music theory and computer science.
The AP course will be available to about 500 schools in the 2023-24 academic year and is designed to be similar to a college African American studies or related course, according to the curriculum. It has been piloted in 60 schools across the country.
The African American studies course comes at a time when the teaching of American history, race and sexual identity in public schools has become mired in culture wars.
The course released Wednesday explores key historic events and social movements that shape Black experiences, the diversity of African societies and their global connections before slavery, and contributions to literature and art by the African diaspora, among other topics.
The course has four units: “Origins of the African Diaspora”; “Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance”; “The Practice of Freedom”; and “Movements and Debates.” The course also will analyze how Black migration shaped cities, including Los Angeles. Students will need to complete a research project, using secondary sources, on a topic related to the course.
Barber, the UCLA professor and a member of the development committee that advised the College Board on the framework, said that there were changes from previous drafts relating to many issues, including the Black queer experience and Black feminism, but that those omissions did not come as a result of DeSantis’ comments.
“Reports that the framework has been completely whitewashed, that is wholly inaccurate,” she said.
But she added, “The AP and College Board processes and protocols are not always in agreement with what the development committee recommended. The framework does not fully represent the force and breadth of African American studies in my opinion.”
Barber said that as higher education professionals, members of the development committee “have different sensibilities, intellectual formations and investments than the College Board, and sometimes those are at odds with what the College Board wants to achieve from their side.”
Barber noted that members of the development committee are independent contractors, not employees of the College Board, and that some members warned the College Board about potential controversy around the omissions in the current framework.
Barber and other members of the development committee recommended texts for the course’s final unit, “Movements and Debates.” Some of those texts discussed intersectionality, which explores how multiple forms of discrimination can affect the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.
Also, some of the authors and texts recommended, but excluded from the current framework, include: Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins,” LeRoi Jones’ “Blues People,” and texts from Frantz Fanon and Robin D.G. Kelley, Barber said. The course does include other recommendations from the committee, including the Combahee River Collective statement, a manifesto from a Black feminist group written in the 1970s.
Barber said the College Board cited copyright issues as one reason some of those texts could not be included. The unit also comes near the end of the class, when students are fatigued and working on projects and exams. That was another reason the College Board gave for omitting some of the recommendations made by the development committee. Those recommendations were instead made optional for students, Barber said.
“This framework is not the end all be all,” she said. “It will change based on feedback from the schools, teachers, development committees and other consultants [the College Board] will bring in.”
PEN America, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting open expression, weighed in on the issue Wednesday.
“The College Board has claimed that these changes are pedagogical, not political,” said a statement from Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education. “Maybe so. But the College Board must be aware that in the context of Florida leaders’ comments, the changes risk sending the message that political threats against the teaching of particular types of content can succeed in silencing that content.”
Ethnic studies is now required for future graduating California high school students. A look inside what students talk about in ethnic studies classes.
The California Department of Education faced contentious debates and intense scrutiny while developing its own ethnic studies framework. In 2021, California became the first state in the nation to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school students to graduate. But in other states, ethnic studies remains controversial. The course is designed to help students understand the past and present struggles and contributions of Black, Asian, Latino, Native/Indigenous Americans and other groups that have experienced racism and marginalization in the U.S.
Tyrone Howard, a professor at UCLA’s school of education, said Florida’s reaction reflects the times.
“You can’t divorce this from a lot of what’s happening in education right now around the banning of books, proposed legislation that’s anti-CRT,” he said, referring to critical race theory, a mainly university-level academic framework that seeks to examine how racial inequality is embedded in legal systems, policies and institutions. “There’s a real, real resistance, in certain states, to have content in our school curriculum that addresses some of the complexity and ugly episodes of racial discrimination in this country.”
Conservatives running in school board races across California mostly fell short. Groups like the American Council say they’ll keep trying.
The AP course will be available to all high schools during the 2024-25 school year.
But Howard expects pushback within California’s conservative enclaves — and that it could foreshadow a politicized topic in the 2024 election.
“There will be states that wholeheartedly endorse it and states that wholeheartedly reject it,” he said. “I think this is going to be massive because it’s part of the ongoing cultural wars. There are people who feel like our kids should not be taught these type of topics. It’s this back-and-forth, this tug of war, and I think it’s going to get ugly.”
As a UCLA professor, Howard welcomes that the new AP course means more freshmen may come into universities with a stronger knowledge of others’ cultures and history.
“What we know is that when students from any background have a robust knowledge and accurate history of experiences, accomplishments and obstacles different groups have gone through, you reduce stereotypes, you reduce prejudice and ultimately you reduce bias and hate,” he said.
Brandi Waters, the senior director and program manager of African American studies for the College Board’s AP program, said students in the pilot program responded to the course with excitement.
“What’s most impactful is students in this course can actually see themselves as moving along the continuum of history,” said Waters, who is also the lead author of the framework. “They find themselves as part of a new course that’s bringing a well-established field forward at a challenging time, [and they] see themselves as a part of this historical trajectory.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.