The past month’s events have thrown the coronation into disarray. The College Board had repeated
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The past month’s events have thrown the coronation into disarray. The College Board had repeated contact with the Florida Department of Education before it overhauled the course by de-emphasizing materials by scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and terms like “systemic” and “womanism.” “We wanted this course to be adopted by 50 states, and we wanted as many students and teachers as possible to be able to experience it,” Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development, told The Washington Post. The College Board had maintained for weeks that the changes were not the result of political pressure.
An outcry swiftly ensued. “This is a train wreck,” said UCLA’s Cheryl Harris. Yale’s David Blight told Vox, “It seems silly to take out the Black Lives Matter movement.” Northwestern’s Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor tweeted: “Just days ago @CollegeBoard held a mtg with African American Studies professors swearing that neither Florida or any politics influenced their decision to gut their AP African American Studies course. They pissed in our face & said it was raining.” In these pages Holden Thorp accused the College Board of caginess. An open letter, signed by over a thousand faculty members in African American studies, called on the College Board to “assume a leadership role in fighting against widespread efforts by states to censor antiracist thought and expression.” Writing in Slate, Jon Boeckenstedt targeted David Coleman, the organization’s chief executive, personally: “Leadership comes with responsibilities that Coleman has clearly ignored or neglected.”
Even John McWhorter, who agreed with the new course’s substance, was “unconvinced, to say the least,” that the changes had been made for the College Board’s stated reasons.
The recent firestorm has been years in the making. Students, parents, and our K-12 and higher-ed systems have empowered the College Board to be a key arbiter of both inclusion and achievement. Without anyone seeming to have noticed, the College Board has also become, through AP, the institution with the largest impact on the student perception of the liberal arts in the United States. But as the scandal over AP African American Studies makes clear, neither students, teachers, nor professors can rely on the College Board to facilitate robust academic conversation, about this or any other field.
Advanced Placement arose in response to specific historical circumstances. In the early 1950s the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education sponsored meetings in which teachers and professors at elite institutions collaborated to accelerate development of democratic habits of mind in the students who they assumed would be the nation’s stewards. When funding for the meetings ran out a few years later, the College Board took over administration of what it would brand the Advanced Placement program.
In 1956 the College Board Review celebrated AP’s success at Newton High School, in Massachusetts. “High on the list of professional benefits stands the tremendous cooperative attainment of college and secondary-school subject specialists who have been able to reassess, reorganize, and revitalize subject matter,” the principal and superintendent reported, before concluding: “Today’s schoolhouse has a greater measure of academic freedom and power than it has ever known.” The characteristic hubris of those affiliated with the College Board aside, the stated ideal was to enliven high school by making it more like college.
From the start, the College Board relied on standardized exams as a means of both easing communication about the quality of students’ work and charging a fee for administration. Some of the teachers and professors who had worked to develop the program worried that the testing was secondary, unnecessary, or even detrimental, but they were largely unfazed by the organization’s authority: After all, they influenced the tests, not the other way around.
Multiple levels of government fund and encourage students’ participation in AP classes. Even as the program’s substance has changed, federal and state governments have offset the cost of AP exams for low-income students. States from Ohio to Texas have laws that require public colleges to recognize AP-exam scores for college credit, regardless of what faculty members think about the program’s merit. Through psychometric magic, most students who sit for exams do indeed earn the opportunity to bypass introductory college courses.
In public schools, the program’s expansion is an answer to calls for equal opportunity. Last fall Michigan’s Department of Education teamed up with the College Board to use the “AP Potential Tool” to identify students who are likely to score a 3 or higher on an AP exam. Letters are then sent home to parents of public-school students, encouraging their children to enroll in AP classes. In 2015, New York City rolled out an “AP for All” initiative in which every public-school student was promised access to at least five AP courses.
Those initiatives clearly benefit the College Board. Whether they adequately serve students is — or should be — a matter of fierce public debate. Just as public-school systems hand over their curricula to the College Board, elite private schools are starting to look askance at such arrangements. Andover, Horace Mann, and Sidwell Friends, among others, have dropped AP in favor of granting teachers more autonomy. Elite colleges are also backing away. Yale’s byzantine AP-credit policy suggests the institution no longer recognizes any AP history offerings, for instance. Harvard does not count AP credit toward graduation.
AP was initially an experimental project. The “Special Standing” or “Advance Standing” Program was developed in part by McGeorge Bundy, a Harvard professor who became dean of the faculty in 1953. Harvard agreed to participate in the enterprise in 1954, and the institution’s imprimatur was a signal of AP’s academic legitimacy. In 1955, Harlan Hanson, Harvard’s director of advanced standing, urged faculty members to conform to College Board stipulations whenever possible, but warned “not to compromise our standards when we think we are right.”
AP still has supporters at Harvard. Henry Louis Gates Jr. consulted with the College Board on its AP African American Studies course, and — in a recent opinion essay in The New York Times — champions leaning in to the complexity around “contemporary hot-button issues” through the course’s curriculum: “Teaching our field through these debates is a rich and nuanced pedagogical strategy, affording our students ways to create empathy across differences of opinion, to understand diversity within difference and to reflect on complex topics from more than one angle.” Gates puts the blame for the recent scandal firmly on Florida’s shoulders, but it’s not clear why the project he lays out could not take shape outside the AP process, or why eminent scholars should be defending the College Board — an organization with vast and questionable influence — rather than acting as counterweights.
Brandi Waters, the College Board’s director of AP African American Studies, placed “interest from students and educators” at the heart of the impetus to create the course. During a course’s pilot phase, she said in a webinar, students, teachers, and professors actively work together to craft a maximally meaningful experience. But some of what happens in a pilot phase — the complex negotiations over what belongs in a classroom, the experimentation on pedagogical approaches, intellectual disputation — inevitably calcifies into rote curricula in programs of this size and scale.
“Students have an opportunity to learn even more than what’s been circulated as the very first version of the pilot,” Waters promised on NPR. But there are reasons to be skeptical. Once AP African American Studies is past the pilot phase, a set curriculum will be uploaded to AP Classroom (the College Board’s new digital platform). The College Board can choose to stop facilitating broad creative exchange around it. If this happens, and history suggests it will, the quality of the course will be in danger.
Consider the writing rubrics — the directions students receive for essay-based testing — for the AP English Language and AP English Literature courses. Initially they were holistic, but recent changes now encourage more reductive essays. A thesis point is awarded for the presence of a defensible position articulated anywhere in a response. Sophistication is worth one bonus point. Introductions, conclusions, topic sentences, and meaningful transitions are unnecessary for college credit.
AP history courses suffer from similar restrictions. Students are limited to timed, document-based questions that can be tested quickly and widely replicated. That deprives teachers and students of opportunities to do archival research, exercise discretion, and navigate genuinely messy contemporary social problems. The need to standardize and scale a course is quite simply at odds with cutting-edge pedagogy.
Or take the example of AP United States Government. The course, begun in 1987 and redesigned in 2019, recently removed Roe v. Wade as a potential exam subject. In the College Board’s words, “AP exam questions are drafted years before they are administered, future questions about the role of this case as precedent are at risk of becoming inaccurate and confusing to students.” Here the logistics of the College Board’s testing — and perhaps its distaste for hot-button issues — pre-empt what might otherwise have spurred a lively classroom debate. Professors could work with high-school teachers to make decisions about course content, who might then be less likely to fall back on logistical and procedural excuses to avoid difficult materials.
In response to Coleman’s initial defense of the African American studies course’s academic integrity, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California accused Coleman of being “merely a puppet of Ron DeSantis,” the Florida governor. Still, repeated calls for Coleman’s dismissal or resignation have been ineffective. Where does that lead us?
Scholars across disciplines should follow the lead of their colleagues in African American studies — they should scrutinize and argue over AP structures, frameworks, readings, writing rubrics, and pedagogical philosophies. It is past time for professors and teachers to view each other as colleagues, and to pursue alternative models of collaboration. We have endowed the College Board with the power to shape millions of minds with its profitable exams. In turn, it holds students hostage for college tuition, stifles teachers, and destroys space for debating difficult topics. The past several weeks have demonstrated why scholars should be thinking critically — that favorite phrase — about continuing to invest in its vision.