The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Both sides in Florida African American studies debate ignore power of AP

Emmitt Glynn teaches AP African American studies to a group of Baton Rouge Magnet High School students on Jan. 30 in Baton Rouge. The Louisiana school is one of 60 around the country testing the new course, which has gained national attention since it was banned in Florida. (Stephen Smith/AP)
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I am waiting in vain for those engaged in the raging argument over the good or bad of Advanced Placement African American Studies in Florida to explain how AP courses work. That would require a discussion of depth and detail, two factors important in education that political combatants consider annoying and irrelevant.

The cable news debate instead focuses on this: Do Black history courses make White students feel bad because their ancestors oppressed people? Do lessons on the Civil War and Reconstruction ignore the United States’ many virtues?

Those questions overlook why AP courses, and similar programs such as International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International, are so much better than other high school offerings. AP African American Studies goes deep into the evolution of race relations in our country and helps high school students understand the context of those times. AP courses give pupils much more to read than usual and prepare them for exams much more demanding than anything else they are going to get in high school.

Advanced Placement is portrayed vaguely in op-eds and TV commentaries as a somewhat elevated offering, like honors courses. In reality AP courses, as well as IB and Cambridge offerings, are very different from the advanced courses without those labels old folks like me remember from high school.

In nearly every AP course, particularly those involving English, science and social studies, the reading lists are longer and the exchanges in class more sophisticated. AP teachers get everyone involved because they know students not only must learn facts but also must comprehend complicated developments that are best taught in discussion, with regular checks for understanding.

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Most people who hear or read about AP, IB or Cambridge have never taken those courses. I analyze participation in such programs on my website, In 2019, only 12 percent of high schools had as many as half of their juniors and seniors take at least one of those courses. Overall, only about a third of U.S. high school students took any AP courses at all in 2021.

There are several reasons for that. Many high schools have unwisely opened AP, IB and Cambridge only to their best students, thinking that average pupils cannot handle deep thought. That has proved to be wrong. Several charter school networks that teach mostly low-income students who are traditionally kept out of hard courses have AP participation rates higher than at New Trier, Great Neck North, Palos Verdes Peninsula and other brand-name high schools full of Ivy League applicants. Disadvantaged students often struggle in these courses, but the effort leads them to learn much more than they would otherwise.

Why do high schools need AP to raise standards? Can’t they add deeper lessons and harder exams to their honors courses? Apparently not. The final exams in AP, IB and Cambridge last at least three hours, two or three times as long as what regular course finals demand. And, when students do badly in regular courses, they and their parents may complain. I have encountered several instances of principals asking teachers to raise low grades to keep the peace.

Teachers have difficulty being kind in that way in the courses I am talking about because they don’t grade those finals and don’t even decide what questions will be on them. IB tests usually don’t have any multiple choice questions. AP exams have some, but the emphasis is on free-response questions for which students have to write long answers that demand analysis and judgment.

AP exams are written and graded by veteran teachers and college faculty members who do not know the students they are evaluating. AP teachers habitually tell students and parents demanding less work that if they ease up, the students will do poorly on the AP exams. Their report cards will not reflect that, because the AP tests are graded in the summer, but the results will arrive eventually and word will spread.

AP, IB and Cambridge often motivate more student effort and better performance, if for no other reasons than the exam takers are high school students who know doing well on these college-level exams will be noticed by the colleges they wish to attend and could earn them college credit. High school students are more likely to work harder on them than college students do in such courses because they don’t have the distractions of being on their own at big campuses.

AP teachers are more motivated to improve student thinking and analysis than the graduate students who do much of the teaching of such courses in college. Those graduate students often focus more on the courses they are taking and on their doctoral dissertations than on how the undergraduates in the sections they teach are performing.

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Such factors never enter into the AP African American studies debate. One key issue that has been part of the argument is critical race theory, a controversial graduate school-level thesis that racism is far more of a drag on American life than people think. The College Board’s final plan for the course omitted many of the scholars and writers associated with critical race theory amid pushback from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other conservative challengers. Critics of CRT say it would be terrible if it were taught in high school. They probably are right, but why not let students take a crack at the issue in their AP final exams?

A free-response question could outline the arguments for and against CRT and ask students to use what they have learned to sort it out. Of course, AP exam writers will never use such a question. The College Board isn’t thrilled to be mentioned on Fox News.

Yet, such a challenging inquiry on the test would show what AP students have learned. They would have to cite key historical moments and the research they have read on how our government and our history work.

It would take high school students deep, something political arguments in op-ed pages and TV ads are never going to do.