College Board Capitulates on African-American Studies . . . Maybe

Published January 25, 2023

National Review Online

Florida governor Ron DeSantis may be on the verge of a major victory in the education wars. Yesterday, the College Board — the group that runs the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) tests — announced that a week from now, on February 1, it will release a revised framework for its pilot AP African-American Studies (APAAS) course. Just a week ago, I reported DeSantis’s determination that the current version of APAAS violates Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, which bars the promotion of critical race theory in K–12. This may set a record for the fastest revision of a College Board course ever.

The College Board is pretending that its hastily thrown together APAAS revision is business as usual. It claims the revised framework is a long-planned response to feedback from the pilot course’s teachers and students. That is transparently false. We’ve only gotten halfway through the first year of a two-year APAAS pilot program. The pilot course hasn’t even gotten to the final quarter, which is where the controversy is and where most of the revisions will surely be made. How can a February 1 announcement of the “official framework” be based on feedback from the pilot’s students and teachers? They can’t give feedback on what they haven’t covered.

Here’s the reality. The College Board is in a panic. Its repeated attempts to keep the APAAS curriculum secret have failed. That curriculum has now been widely published, and the teacher’s guide has been exposed here at NRO as well. My sources tell me that at least one other red state is seriously considering pulling out of the course. More red states are likely doing the same. The College Board knows that if it doesn’t stop the bleeding, the red states will be lost.

The College Board is anything but a down-the-middle enterprise. On the contrary, it regularly defers to academia’s reigning leftist orthodoxies. Yet the College Board enjoys a national monopoly on Advanced Placement testing. To hold that monopoly, the College Board has to at least appear to be receptive to the concerns of America’s moderates and conservatives. Should the College Board become completely (and correctly) identified in the public mind with the interests and perspectives of the blue states, its monopoly could crumble. That is why the College Board is panicking.

So, does the announcement of a hastily thrown together revised APAAS curriculum mean that DeSantis has won? Well, maybe. But best keep in mind what happened during the last national controversy over a College Board AP course.

In 2014, controversy broke out over the new curriculum framework for the College Board’s AP U.S. History exam. That framework was thoroughly leftist, and conservatives rightly complained. In response, the College Board issued a revised curriculum.

That revision, unfortunately, was bogus. It excised the most controversial language, but without changing the thrust of the curriculum itself. On top of that, the College Board had already approved teacher syllabi based on the original leftist curriculum. And textbooks had already been conformed to the controversial leftist U.S. history framework. No changes in either the syllabi or the textbooks were demanded by the College Board after it published its revised curriculum in response to critics. In short, the College Board floated a Potemkin revision, designed to silence critics without actually changing the course. Is that what we’re in for on February 1? Maybe. But maybe not.

Fortunately, we’re at a much-earlier point in the APAAS course-development process than we were when controversy broke out over AP U.S. History. No textbooks have been written and no course syllabi have been approved. There’s still plenty of room for tricks, however. Imagine a rewrite of APAAS that cuts the most controversial readings yet substitutes others with essentially the same leftist bias, even if expressed more subtly.

For an analogy, imagine a school district where parents complain about a U.S. History course for which Howard Zinn is the main text. Then imagine the district swaps out Zinn for a text no one’s heard of — say, James W. Fraser’s, By the People. I wrote about the egregious bias of this College Board–approved AP U.S. History textbook several years ago. Yet few people have heard of Fraser or his textbook. The substitution of Fraser for Zinn might have mollified the parents in our imaginary school district, yet it would barely have been an improvement. It takes time and expertise to read and assess a textbook. Sadly, the College Board specializes in manipulating its access to knowledgeable leftist academics to pull the wool over the eyes of America’s parents.

DeSantis should resist the urge to prematurely declare victory by accepting the College Board’s supposedly “final” revision of APAAS. The Florida Department of Education should take all the time it needs to properly assess the changes. Attention should be paid as well to the first three quarters of the course, not just the controversial final quarter.

The K–12 school curriculum is supposed to be set by the people’s representatives at both the state and local levels. For too long, the College Board’s AP program has constituted an end-run around that democratic process, allowing radical academics to impose their biases on our schools. If DeSantis wins this battle, he will have created a way of blocking that end-run on many subjects, not just AP African-American Studies. But if DeSantis lets himself get fooled by a bogus revision, our best hope for real education reform in decades will have been stymied.

My guess is, this is going to end up as an historic victory for those pushing back against woke. It took tremendous courage for DeSantis to risk false charges of bias by blocking APAAS in its current form. Having done so, DeSantis has revealed the weakness of the College Board’s position. DeSantis is showing states how to take back control of their schools. Yet all that could be lost via premature acceptance of the College Board’s revised APAAS curriculum. Don’t rush. Do this the right way. DeSantis is on the verge of a triumph. When it comes, tremendous credit will rightly be his.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

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