Editorial: Skirmish over AP course raises questions — again — about College Board’s mission
The new Advanced Placement African American studies course was unveiled on the first day of Black History Month amid speculation that controversial subjects, such as Black Lives Matter and reparations, were expunged to avoid conservative political backlash. While the College Board denied that the curriculum was watered down, the flap has again raised questions about the oversize role the private nonprofit plays in shaping U.S. education.
The College Board has provided several explanations of how the AP African American studies course was developed over several years, each time causing critics to sink further into disbelief. Yes, the course was developed under advisement of hundreds of African American studies experts, including Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. And yes, the board incorporated feedback from 60 teachers trying out a pilot course in high schools nationwide.
But the College Board ultimately decides what goes into the courses and exams. Now, it seems there is nothing the board can do to convince critics that it did not water down AP African American studies to avoid the wrath of conservative politicians, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose administration first threatened to block the curriculum. He later threatened to halt state funding for AP programs. Florida is a major customer of the College Board, with the highest AP exam participation rate in the country.
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The College Board has become a kind of gatekeeper to college for many students. The board administers SAT college entrance exams, and it oversees dozens of AP courses and tests that allow high school students to earn college credit. Because AP classes are considered prestigious on college applications, high schools have an incentive to offer them and students to take them, which gives the College Board enormous power over what is taught in classrooms.
For years there have been questions about the College Board’s governance, with critics questioning whether the explosive growth of the board has advanced its mission of making college more accessible and whether there is adequate public oversight.
The College Board began in 1900 as a membership association of higher education institutions. Along the way, the board established the SAT and 39 AP courses. The board has sought to improve access to colleges, especially in recent years, through programs such as a partnership with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free SAT tutoring and free digital resources under a banner called Big Future.
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But not all schools are able to offer a full roster of AP courses, reducing opportunities for students at those schools, which tend to be in lower-income or rural communities. The cost of each exam, at nearly $100, is also a limiting factor, though some states subsidize part of the cost, and Florida and 11 other states pay for all of their students’ exams. This is just one of many costs the College Board charges students.
The most persistent questions about the organization have been about finances. Critics wonder whether the board is more focused on making money than ensuring that students with fewer resources have easier access to college. By far, its AP programs are the board’s biggest moneymaker, generating more than $448 million in 2020, a big chunk of its total $779.6 million revenue that year, tax forms show. Chief Executive David Coleman earned more than $2.5 million, in addition to more than $285,000 he receives in other compensation.
The 31-member board of trustees, mostly academics who provide sole governance of the College Board, determines Coleman’s pay, according to the board’s bylaws. Coleman is also a voting trustee.
Other questions have been raised over the years about the board’s operations and priorities. A Consumer Reports investigation found that College Board was profiting from the voluminous student data it collects by selling it to tech companies, such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo.
The AP African American studies course has put the College Board under a spotlight — and that’s good. It’s long overdue for education leaders to scrutinize the College Board and whether it’s fulfilling its stated mission to expand access to higher education.
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