Florida Officials Had Repeated Contact With College Board Over African American Studies

Florida Officials Had Repeated Contact With College Board Over African American Studies

Florida Officials Had Repeated Contact With College Board Over African American Studies

A letter from state officials is likely to fuel controversy over the College Board, which has been accused of stripping or minimizing concepts to please conservatives.

While the College Board was developing its first Advanced Placement course in African American studies, the group was in repeated contact with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, often discussing course concepts that the state said it found objectionable, a newly released letter shows.

When the final course guidelines were released last week, the College Board had removed or significantly reduced the presence of many of those concepts — like intersectionality, mass incarceration, reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement — though it said that political pressure played no role in the changes. Florida announced in January that it would not approve the curriculum.

The specifics about the discussions, which occurred over the course of a year, were outlined in a Feb. 7 letter from the Florida Department of Education to the College Board.

The existence of the letter was first reported by The Daily Caller, a conservative news site. A copy of the letter was posted on Scribd. Its authenticity was verified by a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, which released a copy on Thursday.

The College Board responded to the letter with one of its own, saying that Florida’s concerns had not influenced any revisions to the course, which had been shaped instead by feedback from educators.

“We provide states and departments of Education across the country with the information they request for inclusion of courses within their systems,” the letter said, adding, “We need to clarify that no topics were removed because they lacked educational value. We believe all the topics listed in your letter have substantial educational value.” The College Board declined an interview.

The discussions between the College Board and the state took place as right-wing activists across the country were increasingly taking aim at school lessons that emphasize race and racism in America. Governor DeSantis, who has presidential ambitions, has tried to cast himself as the voice of parents who are fed up with what he has called “woke indoctrination” from progressive educators.

Governor DeSantis has tried to cast himself as the voice of parents who are fed up with what he has called “woke indoctrination” from progressive educators.Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald, via Associated Press

The back and forth between Florida and the College Board is sure to add to the controversy over the Advanced Placement curriculum, which has prompted a debate among academics in the fields of Black studies, U.S. history and beyond. It has also cast suspicion on the College Board, long criticized for producing exams that seemed to favor white and affluent students.

Supporters of the new A.P. course — which can yield college credit for high school students who do well in it — say it encourages the study of Black history and culture, which have often had only a limited place in high schools. For many students, the Advanced Placement class could provide their first opportunity to delve into a fuller picture of Black history and culture around the world, such as ancient African civilizations and African American poetry, art and music.

Supporters see another advantage as well, saying that the class will attract Black and Hispanic students, who have not enrolled in A.P. classes as frequently as white students.

But the Florida letter suggested discrepancies with the College Board’s account of events, and puts increasing pressure on David Coleman, the group’s chief executive, and Trevor Packer, head of the Advanced Placement program. They have mounted an aggressive defense of the course’s development process with scholars, educators and the news media, repeatedly saying there was no political interference.

The state formally informed the College Board that it had rejected the A.P. course only three weeks before the College Board released its final guidelines on Feb. 1 — too little time, the board said, to make any politically motivated revisions. But according to the Florida letter, the state had warned the College Board months before, in September 2022, that it would not add the African American Studies class to the state’s course directory without revisions.

The Florida letter also outlines a key Nov. 16 meeting to air differences between the state and the College Board over the course. In the meeting, the state claimed that the A.P. African American Studies course violated regulations requiring that “instruction on required topics must be factual and objective and may not suppress or distort significant historical events.”

According to the state, the College Board acknowledged that the course would undergo revisions, while pushing back against the state’s request to remove concepts like “systemic marginalization” and “intersectionality,” which the College Board saw as integral to the class.

Nevertheless, by the time the course’s final framework was released on Feb. 1, those terms had largely been removed; intersectionality was listed in passing as an optional subject for the course’s required final project, in which students can choose their area of focus.

In its response to the Florida letter, the College Board said, “We are confident in the historical accuracy of every topic included in the pilot framework, as well as those now in the official framework.” The board has also said that students and teachers could still engage with ideas like intersectionality through optional lessons or projects and through A.P. Classroom, a free website that will serve as a repository for important texts for the class.

Even so, many scholars have noted the omission of terms that, according to the College Board’s own research documents, are considered central to African American Studies as it is taught on college campuses.

Intersectionality, for example, is an influential theory first laid out by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It posits that race, class, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity intersect in ways that shape individuals’ experience of the world.

Professor Crenshaw’s work is important to several disciplines, including African American studies, gender studies and legal studies. She is also closely associated with critical race theory, a concept that has become a lightning rod among conservative curriculum activists, who object to schools emphasizing the concepts of racism or white privilege.

In a written statement to The Times, Professor Crenshaw said, “People need to pay very close attention to this story — not just Black studies educators and K-12 teachers, but everyone who worries that the slide to authoritarianism is real. This is how it happens.”

She continued, “If a billion-dollar organization like the College Board will not stand up against the censorship of those who don’t toe their line, they signal that the values central to our multiracial democracy are soft and negotiable.”

The Florida letter, sent to Brian Barnes, a senior director at the College Board who works specifically with the state of Florida, suggests that the state will look again at the A.P. course. The letter referred to “a comprehensive review of your resubmission,” and asked for more information about the free resources in A.P. Classroom, including on “intersectionality.”

An A.P. African American studies class at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Louisiana, which is testing the new College Board course.Stephen Smith/Associated Press

Some scholars have defended the course and its changes.

Kerry L. Haynie, a political science professor at Duke who served on the committee that developed the course, said the College Board had sent him a copy of Florida’s letter, as well as its response. “I have told you over and over and over again, not one time was there any discussion of Ron DeSantis, or any political pressure, when the committee met, not once,” Dr. Haynie said. “I don’t assume that what’s in that letter is accurate.”

But other scholars, troubled by the changes, questioned whether the course could be considered true to African American studies.

“With key concepts and thinkers now sidelined, the new curriculum lacks the intellectual heft and moral urgency that students in Florida — and students everywhere — need and deserve,” wrote Matthew Guterl, a professor of Africana and American studies at Brown University, in an email to The New York Times.

Joshua M. Myers, a professor of Africana studies at Howard University who served on the course’s 2021 writing team, also criticized the course’s final version.

“I think these changes are convenient,” Dr. Myers said in a statement last week to The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper. “They align with the College Board’s mission, which is to make the course salable. But do they align with the mission of Black studies? I don’t think so.”

Nelva Williamson, who teaches a pilot version of the course in Houston, said she could continue to teach her students about intersectionality and reparations, even if those concepts are minimized in the course’s official framework.

“This is a great opportunity for students to learn, to take a deep dive into the history and culture of the African diaspora,” said Ms. Williamson, who teaches at the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy, a public school whose students are mainly Black or Hispanic. “It’s something that’s much needed and much wanted.”

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