The Rocky Path to the College Board’s A.P. Black Studies Course
On the second night of Black History Month, a sparkling crowd of academics and teachers gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to celebrate the unveiling of the first ever Advanced Placement course in African American studies.
But clouding the festive mood was a nagging concern. Compared with the original plans for the course, it now lacked, or had less of, certain topics that people at the gathering thought were essential to the discipline, like Black Lives Matter and reparations. And they wondered if the explanation was pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a probable Republican presidential candidate who has railed against what he calls “woke indoctrination” in schools.
What could explain the missing mentions of queer studies and police brutality, and the new inclusion of Black Republicans, like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice?
Standing onstage, David Coleman, the chief executive of the College Board, the billion-dollar nonprofit that administers the SAT and A.P. courses, addressed the doubters in the room.
“They are some of the most serious criticisms that have been leveled at the A.P. program in its history,” Mr. Coleman said, somberly. But no, he said to the guests, the motivations for the changes had been pure.
In the days since, the conflict has grown only more vitriolic. In an extraordinary back and forth last week, the state of Florida released a chronology of its communications with the College Board, seeming to take credit for alterations in the A.P. course.
The College Board, which relies on state participation to administer its tests, has fired back, saying that changes were made after hearing from teachers about what worked, and politics had nothing to do with it.
In a statement on Saturday, it said that the governor and the Florida Department of Education were posturing to stoke publicity: “We have made the mistake of treating FDOE with the courtesy we always accord to an education agency, but they have instead exploited this courtesy for their political agenda.”
And, in a statement to The Times, the College Board added that the Education Department showed “ignorance and derision for the field of African American studies.”
In today’s political climate, a dispute may have been unavoidable. African American studies has roots in the civil rights and students’ movements of the 1960s. Its left-leaning scholars often see their discipline as part of an anti-racist social justice movement.
For many conservatives, the field is an example of liberal orthodoxy run amok. They have argued the very premise of it, and called for an approach to Black history that focuses on heroic figures of the past and stays away from contemporary political debates or academic theorizing.
But the College Board also hurt its own cause among supporters, by whittling away material during the months it was engaged in discussions with the DeSantis administration, according to interviews with scholars, teachers and College Board officials, as well as a review of several drafts of the curriculum.
The organization also did not tell some of its academic colleagues of those frustrating discussions — or about the significant omissions.
Now, the College Board is defending the A.P. course it has spent years developing. The nonprofit has infuriated many African American studies scholars for what they view as a stealth betrayal. And its once-heralded course is mired in dissension.
Greg Carr, an African American studies professor at Howard University and an adviser on the curriculum, said the high school class is a step forward, and that it was unrealistic to expect it to look like a true college-level African American studies course. “The College Board is not revolutionary,” he said. “It maintains the status quo in this country — the hierarchy, the formation. The question we have to ask ourselves is what is possible.”
For over a decade, there had been talk about the need for some kind of Advanced Placement course focused on the Black experience.
But after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 inspired global protest, the College Board decided to roll out an African American studies class, with a strong emphasis on United States history, politics and culture. The selection of African American studies instead of a more conventional history course was pivotal, putting the staid, mainstream College Board into close contact with a left-leaning group of scholars deeply engaged in contemporary politics.
The discipline, also called Black studies or Africana studies, toggles between the past and present, melding history, the arts and theory. In introductory classes, the achievements of ancient African civilizations might be taught as a source of pride, while the legacy of Jim Crow might be traced into the lives of Black Americans today, in the education, housing and criminal justice systems.
By the spring of 2021, the College Board had hired a young scholar to direct the course’s development and began collecting college syllabuses. It also met with students andprofessors, all in an effort to build consensus on what the class should be.
In the fall of 2022, it launched a pilot class to try out an early version of the curriculum. Darren Williams, a social studies teacher in Tulsa, Okla., was part of the group. His students, most of whom are Black, Hispanic or Asian American, were deeply moved by lessons on lynching, he said, and had rich discussions about the death of Tyre Nichols after a brutal beating by an almost all Black group of police officers in Memphis.
While the College Board wants all students to take the course, it also hopes to address one of its biggest issues: persuading more Black students to take A.P. exams, where they are historically underrepresented.
The Board, a nonprofit, describes its mission as connecting students to college success, and it has been extraordinarily influential. There are signs, however, that its influence could be waning.
The SAT, which it administers, has come under increasing fire from critics who say that standardized testing exacerbates inequities across class and racial lines.
And a significant number of schools have eliminated their testing requirements, most notably the University of California system, because of the questions around equity.
The SAT’s uncertain future underscores the College Board’s increasing reliance on its more than three dozen A.P. classes, already the organization’s biggest revenue producer from student test fees and government subsidies.
The African American studies class, because it is an elective in most states, would not attract enough students to make any kind of difference to its finances, the College Board said.
But against the wider backdrop, the College Board’s revenue relies, in part, on big states such as Florida, the nation’s third most populous and also its