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College Board AP African American Studies Clash Brings Organization Under New Scrutiny | Teen Vogue

Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks. If you were to name the most influential Black writers of all time, these names would certainly make the list. And yet, as of a February 1 announcement from the College Board, these three writers, along with a number of others, are not specifically included in the new advanced placement (AP) African American studies curriculum

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, renowned writer and University of Los Angeles professor Robin D. G. Kelley, whose work was also excluded from the College Board’s curriculum, defined Black studies as an examination of “Black lives: the structures that produce premature death, that make us vulnerable; the ideologies that both invent Blackness and render Black people less than human; and, perhaps most important, the struggle to secure a different future.” 

The new changes — to a curriculum meant to educate young people on the history and ongoing struggle for Black freedom — have inspired vigorous backlash from educators and a renewed look at the College Board’s controversial history. For example, the organization’s marquee test was designed by Carl Campbell Brigham, whose 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence argued that testing showed the intellectual superiority of “the Nordic race group” and that “American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive.” Not long after this book was published, the College Board asked Brigham to begin developing the SAT, and the first test was administered in 1926

Brigham was an “open white supremacist who wanted to prove the superiority of white men over everybody else,” Jesse Hagopian, a campaign organizer at the Zinn Education Project focused on Black history, tells Teen Vogue.

In a remarkable February 11 statement, the College Board acknowledged “mistakes in the rollout” of the AP African American studies course that “are being exploited.” The organization praised “the long work of scholars who have built this field,” said the framework it released is “only the outline of the course,” and that individual AP teachers are allowed to choose which works they want to include in their syllabi. 

The Board also said that contemporary events like “the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations, and mass incarceration” were never included in the official curriculum. Instead, the organization said, they were considered “optional topics” in the pilot version of the program that launched in 2022, and that students are free to choose “contemporary issues and debates” as subjects in the research project that occupies three weeks of the course.

In its February 11 statement, the College Board condemned how Florida officials framed their disagreements about the course. “While it has been claimed that the College Board was in frequent dialogue with Florida about the content of AP African American studies, this is a false and politically motivated charge.” 

The organization also said that it had “no negotiations about the content of this course with Florida or any other state, nor did we receive any requests, suggestions, or feedback.” According to the statement, the Florida Department of Education did not offer substantive criticisms of the course, instead asking “vague, uninformed questions like, ‘What does the word “intersectionality” mean?’ and ‘Does the course promote Black Panther thinking?’”

Florida is a major user of the College Board’s marquee exams and programs: the SAT, ACT, and advanced placement courses. In 2020, the state had the highest rate of AP participation in the country, and still requires its state university system colleges to use the SAT or ACT, despite a growing national test-optional movement. During the first year of the pandemic, Florida, unlike other states, refused to waive the SAT or ACT requirement. 

“Florida’s state scholarship, Bright Future, requires the SAT or ACT and has even increased the score requirements during the pandemic,” Jennifer Jessie, a tutor for the SAT, ACT, and advanced placement courses who lives in Virginia, tells Teen Vogue via email. “The College Board has long put the interest of Black students behind the interest of [revenue].”

The debate over this curriculum is the College Board’s most recent controversy, but it is far from its first. Advanced placement exams have had vocal critics for years, as many argue that the exams are prohibitively expensive and not an adequate measure of learning. The organization also drew significant criticism for how it handled online exams during the beginning of the pandemic, with at-home tests proving to be a challenge for those without reliable internet access and some students having to take exams during religious holidays. These challenges came at the expense of low-income and minority students. 

Many students have insisted that the structure of an AP class, particularly its emphasis on testing and the multiple-choice format of the exams, can be a hindrance to the learning process, particularly for neurodivergent students. Hagopian, who used to teach AP United States history, agreed with this sentiment. “My critique of the College Board comes not just from an academic inquiry standpoint but also from my experience as a teacher who was being asked to teach to a test rather than teach to my students,” he explains. “It really kills a lot of the joy in the classroom when students are constantly asking, ‘Is that on the test?’ rather than, ‘How can I apply these lessons of history to help create a better society today?’ Those are the questions I want students to ask, and the College Board curriculum has never been organized around that idea.”

Teen Vogue has reached out to the College Board for comment.

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