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Is allowing the College Board to regulate AP African American Studies the right move?

Last semester, the College Board began to soft launch their Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course to 60 high schools in the United States for the 2022-2023 school year. Saying race is a controversial topic in the US is an understatement, as both political parties have been outspoken on what they think belongs in the course content. Unfortunately, letting the College Board adopt such a fraught course to societal standards is where the very problem lies.

In 2021, the College Board announced they would begin piloting the AP African American Studies class to select schools across the nation. According to the College Board’s official website, the organization’s goal is to make the AP African American Studies exam available for all students to take by spring 2025.

Black perspectives are crucial to America’s foundation and contemporary picture. However, the College Board has shown that it is susceptible to political persuasion in the past, and its exams are not ideal for platforming interdisciplinary humanities subjects. 

This was shown through the College Board’s revision of AP US History (APUSH). In 2015, conservatives criticized the history course for painting the US in an exclusively negative light instead of emphasizing “American exceptionalism” or igniting patriotism. Instead of defending its course, the College Board revised their APUSH curriculum to please critics.

When Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis complained that AP African American Studies “lacks educational value” and rejected the new AP course for high school students statewide, the College Board proceeded to make several adjustments to its content. Among the topics removed includes the names of Black scholars associated with Critical Race Theory (CRT), the queer experience, Black feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

While CRT is constantly being debated in school district meetings, removing subjects like Black feminism and Black Lives Matter movements makes no sense. Both movements remain a prominent mode of activism, especially in the past several years, and not teaching them to students would be improperly portraying historical events. The fight for women’s rights sought by White women obviously differed from the experiences of Black women; exploring their struggles through their lens only benefits the curriculum and the students learning it as a whole. 

Yet, as an organization that rakes in over a billion dollars in annual revenue, the College Board knows that it would make the most profit by staying in everyone’s good graces. At the expense of staying neutral and “safe” to not trigger racial sensitivities, the College Board shies away from topics that expand understanding of African American history, culture, politics and economics—all themes interdisciplinary studies should be teaching. Is the only aim of American history to portray the successes and contributions of the White majority? 

And aside from the issues that lie in the edited curriculum, the very fact that African American Studies is being piloted to students through the AP format is a problem. Despite the course’s name, “studies” should be used very loosely as AP classes never amount to more than brute memorization and cramming, followed by students forgetting everything after finishing the exam. Even though adopting a humanities course like AP African American Studies seems like an exciting avenue for the College Board to incorporate more course diversity, AP has never been the right approach to encourage critical thinking among students and merging frequent class seminars. There simply is not enough time in the school year.

More than that, high school AP classes rarely cultivate a motivated, engaged learning environment, and I think AP African American Studies—which I find an intriguing course—would fall flat in the high school classroom. Whereas, if a student were to take an Introduction to Black Studies course through dual enrollment or later in college, their classmates are more likely to be engaged out of personal interest, learning from professors that specialize in the research. At the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) alone, there are over 1,300 courses in the field of African American Studies for students to select from. College environments are more suitable for exploring humanities-related departments. 

With AP exams mainly centering around standardized testing, there is a lot of pressure to keep tight to the units and not stray from the curriculum so that every topic can be covered before the exam. And as a result, a huge aspect of discussions is missing from APUSH or AP World History courses to appease the tight deadlines. Humanities pride themselves in facilitating discussion, but the year-long AP format is not likely to encourage analysis among students. 

The College Board is taking the wrong approach to teaching interdisciplinary studies. Instead of inspiring students to pursue the field of African American Studies, AP’s rigorous, lackluster format would sap interest out of students, especially if AP’s characteristic reliance on students to self-study is expected. 

The College Board cannot even deal with the basic criteria of a humanities course: seminar discussions and nonlinear course curricula. Continuously removing content to pacify critics and squeezing a multifaceted subject into one exam for dreary high school classes removes the very appeal of the humanities. In the grand scheme of things, some classes are better left unstandardized by the College Board. The struggle to figure out what AP African American Studies should include suggests that it will be a tough time for the College Board to adopt more humanities or social sciences—but it will have an even tougher time making high school students enjoy them. 

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