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College Board faces storm of criticism over AP African American studies

Debate has erupted over lessons and authors cut from the new Advanced Placement course plan

Patrice Frasier teaches the African American Studies course at Baltimore Polytechnic last year as part of a pilot. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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One day after the College Board unveiled revisions to its debut African American studies class, debate intensified Thursday within academia and beyond over the decision to drop from the course plan various lessons and authors disliked by conservative politicians.

The organization eliminated some items that appeared on a draft of the plan that circulated a year ago: lessons on Black Lives Matter and on reparations for the harms of slavery and racial discrimination, as well as suggested readings from left-leaning notables such as scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, an architect of critical race theory. The topics aren’t barred from the course, though, and teachers are free to choose reading assignments.

The College Board and several professors who worked on the Advanced Placement course said it was all strictly a matter of pedagogy, not politics. Others saw darker motives.

“This was pure cowardice,” Joshua Myers, an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, who is listed as an adviser to the AP course framework, wrote in an email. “And it shows how far liberals will go to confront the creeping fascism in this country. And that’s not very far at all.”

David W. Blight, a history professor at Yale University and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Frederick Douglass, said he withdrew an endorsement of the course plan on Wednesday after he heard about the revisions. “I thought, ‘No, no, wait a minute,’” Blight recalled. He did not participate in the course development, but he said he wants answers. “This is all a matter of academic freedom.”

Kerry Haynie, dean of social sciences at Duke University, said the committee of college faculty and high school teachers who developed the AP African American studies course was not influenced by criticism from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or conservative commentators who derided it as a “woke” curriculum. Haynie is on the committee.

“We have never had a discussion about any political pressure in the discussions on this course,” Haynie said. “Not one. Never.” He said much of the debate about what’s in the course and what’s out is typical for academia. “There’s no uniform agreement on what the African American studies canon is,” he said.

Here's what is in the AP course framework

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program and SAT, was scrambling to answer critics and skeptics. The course is being tried out this year in about 60 high schools and will be available nationwide by fall 2024.

“People are rightly worried about academic freedom these days,” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board. He pledged that the College Board would post writings from Crenshaw and many others, from all parts of the political spectrum, on an AP portal accessible to teachers and students around the country.

He said he regrets any misunderstandings about the rollout of the course plan. “I want no ifs, ands or buts about our stance,” he said. “We are devoted to these notions of access and freedom.”

College Board officials provided The Washington Post with a list of scores of texts for which it has sought copyright permission to use as source material. It has a green light to distribute to classes Crenshaw’s 1991 article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” It is awaiting a decision on the 2014 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations.” It was turned down in a request to distribute James Baldwin’s 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”

At the heart of the controversy are three issues: Whether DeSantis or his allies influenced it, why secondary readings from authors like Crenshaw were omitted, and why certain lessons in contemporary issues were eliminated.

The College Board has provided documents showing that key decisions about the course were made well before Florida officials rejected it in January, based on their view of an early version of the plan. It said that the secondary reading list is routinely omitted from AP course frameworks, but that the sources themselves are widely used and available through AP portals online.

The lesson plan, officials say, is influenced by the guidance of professors and the experience of teachers in how much time should be devoted to particular topics. The course starts with five weeks on the origins of the African diaspora, delving into early African empires, city-states and politics. It then explores history and culture through the transatlantic slave trade to the 20th-century civil rights movement and beyond.

At the end, the course devotes three weeks to a research project. That could be focused on Black Lives Matter, Black conservative politics or any other subject a student might choose. The project, culminating in a lengthy paper, will count for 20 percent of a student’s AP score, officials said.

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

Officials said contemporary history often counts for little on the AP exam. In AP U.S. History, they said, it counts for 3 percent.

Trevor Packer, a College Board senior vice president, said officials understand the argument for devoting more lessons to contemporary topics. “There are trade-offs either way,” he said. But the value of longer projects, he said, lies in “the depth and learning and research skills that are valued by colleges.”