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Amid DeSantis attacks, AP African American studies course is updated

The College Board denies that it watered down the course after criticism from the Florida governor

Sunrise at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on Jan. 16. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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The College Board on Wednesday finalized a plan for its new Advanced Placement course in African American studies, omitting mention of some left-leaning figures from an earlier draft that in recent weeks had become a lightning rod for conservative critics.

In January, based on their read of preliminary documents, Florida officials rejected the AP course, saying it “lacks educational value.” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a potential presidential candidate, called it a “woke” curriculum and an example of progressive “indoctrination.” Other politicians pushed back. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) urged the College Board to hold fast to its principles and denounced “political grandstanding” by DeSantis.

Gone from the 234-page final document are Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a scholar and writer on civil rights and critical race theory, and Angela Davis, a political activist and academic known for her membership in the Communist and Black Panther parties.

The College Board denied that it watered down the course. Many of the changes to the course plan, according to an internal College Board document and those who worked on it, were in motion long before the controversy erupted.

For example, a version from early 2022 would have taught about Black Lives Matter and the reparations movement late in the course. By December, the plan had shifted to give students more time for in-depth projects on a topic of their choosing, and the College Board eventually moved those topics into a list of options for the independent study.

Read the AP course framework

The course overview seeks to immerse students in Black history and culture — without shying from fraught topics of race and racism — in a way that until now has mostly been available only on college campuses. The class presents a sequence of lessons beginning with the origins of the African diaspora and the transatlantic slave trade and moving through abolition, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement and more.

College Board officials who oversee the AP program and SAT said the course had been “shaped only by the input of experts,” as well as the principles and practices underlying other AP courses, from art history to physics. David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, insisted in a telephone interview Tuesday that officials had preserved the integrity of African American studies. “Read the framework itself,” Coleman said. “You will find there, if you read it, a remarkable encounter with the full range of the Black community.”

The course, which is being tried out this year in 60 high schools around the country, was designed in consultation with more than 300 professors and aims to replicate similar introductory classes a student would take in college. Coleman noted that the debut of the official course plan coincides with the first day of Black History Month and in the same year as the 60th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jordan Marlowe, a social studies teacher in Alachua County, Fla., who teaches various AP classes and a course on African American history that is not affiliated with AP, said many of his students would be interested in the College Board’s course.

Backlash grows against DeSantis decision to block AP African American studies class

“In just about every class, 40 to 60 percent of the kids raised their hands and said, ‘Yeah, if y’all offered that, I would take it,’” Marlowe said. “So that’s, I would say, a pretty good response. Generally, students aren’t chomping at the bit to do extra work.” But Marlowe said the state’s denunciation of the course had damaged the rollout.

In a Jan. 12 letter, the Florida Department of Education notified the College Board it didn’t approve of the course.

“As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” the letter said. About a week later, after being pressed for details on what it found unacceptable, the department listed “concerns” that included discussions of Black Lives Matter, Black feminist literary thought and Black queer studies, along with other topics.

If the “College Board decides to revise its course to comply with Florida law,” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz tweeted on Jan. 20, “we will come back to the table.”

Black Lives Matter appears once in the document. The other two phrases do not, but they are represented conceptually. How DeSantis and his administration react to the official course plan remains to be seen. “I haven’t seen it, so I’ll have to get back to you,” DeSantis told reporters Wednesday.

Fresh debate was flaring Wednesday over the process of revising the course plan, with some advocates outraged at the possibility of political meddling.

“To wake up on the first day of Black History Month to news of white men in positions of privilege horse trading essential and inextricably linked parts of Black History, which is American history, is infuriating,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that advocates for Black LGBTQ people, said in a statement.

But Trevor Packer, a College Board senior vice president who oversees AP, said key decisions were made “well prior to outcries from any political person or entity.” The College Board cited the inclusion of Bayard Rustin, a civil rights leader who was gay, as evidence that the course explores the Black gay experience.

Robert J. Patterson, a professor of African American studies at Georgetown University who co-chaired a committee that developed the course, said the overview was not edited in any way in response to the DeSantis attacks. “If there’s any indoctrination happening, it’s his political indoctrination,” Patterson said. “Not in the course.”

Teens embrace AP class featuring Black history, a subject under attack

Patterson said the course aims to expose students to ideas and texts that may “complicate” some of the knowledge they’ve received about American history, noting that President George Washington was an enslaver as well as a Founding Father, and that President Abraham Lincoln, famed for his role in emancipation, also supported a movement to resettle freed Black people in Africa.

Regardless of what Florida decides, AP African American studies is projected next fall to expand to hundreds more high schools around the country. Plans call for it to be available nationwide for all interested schools in 2024, with the first AP exams in the subject to occur in spring 2025.

The overview lays out the course in four units, with five weeks devoted to the origins of the African diaspora; eight weeks to “freedom, enslavement and resistance”; five weeks to the “practice of freedom,” which spans Reconstruction to Black internationalism; and six weeks to movements and debates, such as the civil rights movement. Students are also expected to spend three to four weeks at minimum on a project of their choosing, culminating with a paper of 1,200 to 1,500 words.

The movements and debates unit, delving into recent history and contemporary issues, will probably be the most closely scrutinized. The required readings include writings from King and Malcolm X, as well as authors Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou. Another required source: a roundtable event in 2011 with President Barack Obama and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

The plan eliminates from a previous draft some suggested secondary sources, including writings from Crenshaw and Davis. The College Board provided The Washington Post with an internal document that shows the movements and debates unit had been significantly revised by Dec. 22 — with no references to Crenshaw and, at that point, a brief footnote mention of Davis — weeks before DeSantis went public with his criticism. By that time, the final unit of the course had been slimmed down to help ensure time for the student projects.

African Americans say the teaching of Black history is under threat

Coleman said that the revision treats secondary sources the same way other AP courses do. It does not mean that texts from Crenshaw, Davis or other writers will be barred from classes. Teachers have flexibility in what they assign. Certain phrases were also edited in a manner that might make them less provocative. A week focused on “The Black feminist movement, womanism and intersectionality,” in a draft dated February 2022, had morphed in the final version to “Black women’s voices in society and leadership.”

The course will probably bolster a movement that has long fought for funding and recognition within academia. It is a signal from the College Board to high school students that African American studies travels in the same company as English literature, calculus, world history, environmental science and an array of other subjects that get AP treatment. It could also lead many to want to explore African American studies in college.

Claude A. Clegg III, who chairs the department of African, African American and diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he was among the hundreds of academics whom the College Board consulted. “I’m very much a supporter of what they’re trying to do, awakening an early awareness of the field and the substance of the field,” Clegg said. “I think they have a solid framework. The things I’ve seen so far, they’re covering the ground I would expect to be covered in an intro-level college course.”

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