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

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.

The specifics about the discussions, 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 early Thursday.

The College Board responded to the letter with one of its own, released on Thursday, 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 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 cast himself as the voice of parents who are fed up with what he has called “woke indoctrination” from progressive educators.

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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. They 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, enriching their study skills and potentially enabling them to amass college credit.

The Florida letter suggests discrepancies with the College Board’s account of events. Florida publicly announced that it had rejected the A.P. course in January, a few weeks before the College Board released its final guidelines — too little time, the board said, to make any politically motivated revisions. But according to the letter, the state informed 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, except that intersectionality was listed 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.

The Florida letter to the College Board was written by the Department of Education’s Office of Articulation, which ensures that courses meet the requirements for acceptance by colleges, ultimately leading to a degree.

The letter was sent to Brian Barnes, a senior director at the College Board who works specifically with the state of Florida.

The conservative attacks on school curriculums were sparked, in part, by a growing interest in Black studies following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, as well as by The New York Times’s publication in 2019 of the 1619 Project, which highlighted the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Florida has banned schools from teaching the 1619 Project.

While some academics in the field of African American studies have criticized the College Board’s revisions of the course as kowtowing to political pressure, others have defended the revisions.

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, including themes that are often absent from the conventional high school curriculum, such as ancient African civilizations and African American women’s movements.

But Matthew Guterl, a professor of Africana and American studies at Brown University, raised concern about the course’s content as well as the College Board’s apparent effort to placate conservative states.

“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,” Dr. Guterl wrote in an email to The New York Times on Thursday. “Just as disturbingly, the College Board’s weak-kneed appeasement heralds an age of even stricter state control of truth, knowledge and education. This cannot go unchallenged.”

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 as a nod to political forces.

“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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