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A half dozen students from diverse backgrounds are shown from the side starting forward while seated in their desks.
Black students are underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses. Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

New Advanced Placement African American Studies course is a watered down version of itself

On February 1, 2023– the first day of Black History Month – the College Board released the framework for its new Advanced Placement African American Studies course.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has criticized the pilot version of the African American studies course as lacking educational value, and his administration has banned the course from Florida’s public schools.

In the following Q&A, Suneal Kolluri, who specializes in the study of AP courses, provides insight into where the course hits the mark and where it comes up short.

1. What stands out most about the new AP African American Studies course?

The course curriculum puts Black people at the center. This is significant for two reasons.

First, Advanced Placement has long had courses focused on topics like European history and French language and culture, but no class that focuses primarily on the Black experience. This fact is particularly troubling given the struggles AP courses have had in recruiting and serving Black students. Black students make up just 9% of AP participants, despite making up 15% of high school students across the United States.

Given the prestige of Advanced Placement and the benefits afforded to those who participate – like more experienced teachers and better college outcomes – a course with the potential to attract more Black students to take AP is significant.

Second, across the country, few classes – with or without the AP label – are available to students interested in studying the Black experience. This course will likely give many students that opportunity for the first time.

2. Is the new AP African American studies course different from earlier versions?

Unfortunately, the course has been watered down compared to its pilot version. The pilot course, first made available in January 2023, was heavy on African and African American history, but in its fourth and final unit, included a robust examination of issues of race, racism and oppression in the present day. In the new course framework – released on February 1, 2023 – many of these current discussions of race, racism and oppression have disappeared.

The course is billed as an African American Studies course, not an African American history course. Interrogating present-day oppression is central to the discipline of African American studies. I believe eliminating this content produces a course that leaves students insufficiently prepared to participate in a multiracial democracy.

3. How did the political environment shape the new course?

The College Board insists that the political environment did not influence the recent revisions, but evidence suggests otherwise. In late January 2023, the DeSantis administration wrote to the College Board that it would not allow the implementation of AP African American Studies in Florida schools. The AP responded, not in defense of the pilot curriculum, but to assert that the content remained under revision until February 1 – the first day of Black History Month.

In the latest official course framework, many of the exact topics with which DeSantis had taken issue had been stricken from the required curriculum. Discussions in the pilot course about reparations, redlining, and Black Lives Matter are now included as topics that are not required as part of the course. Instead, they are listed to be covered optionally by students in their research projects for the class.

The College Board goes on to emphasize that this list of topics can be refined by states and districts. In my experience examining AP content, optional content is rare in AP curriculum.

4. What does this course leave out?

Specifically, the course has omitted content that would invite students to discuss racial oppression in the modern day. Perhaps in response to bans on critical race theory, authors like Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar who pioneered the field of critical race theory, have been stricken from the curriculum.

Other topics – like Black Lives Matter, incarceration and reparations – have been left out of the required curriculum, and are now included as optional topics for a research project.

5. What kind of grade would you give this course and why?

The grade would depend on whether I am grading on a curve. Comparing the course to other available options in U.S. high schools, the course would earn an A. To the best of my knowledge, no other broadly available course delves so deeply into the Black experience.

However, grading the course for its commitment to the ideals of African American Studies, its attempt to holistically present the Black experience in the United States, and its ability to prepare students for participating in democracy, the course fails. It gets an F.

African American Studies is not just African American history. Racism is not a relic of the past. African American Studies scholars know this, but Advanced Placement African American Studies students may not learn that. Unfortunately, I believe this is an abject failure for efforts to bring African American studies into high schools.

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