The dispute over the A.P. course is about more than just the content of a high school class. Education is the center of much vitriolic partisan debate, and the College Board’s decision to try to build a curriculum covering one of the most charged subjects in the country — the history of race in America — may have all but guaranteed controversy. If anything, the arguments over the curriculum underscore the fact that the United States is a country that cannot agree on its own story, especially the complex history of Black Americans.
In light of the politics, the College Board seemed to opt out of the politics. In its revised 234-page curriculum framework, the content on Africa, slavery, reconstruction and the civil rights movement remains largely the same. But the study of contemporary topics — including Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, queer life and the debate over reparations — is downgraded. The subjects are no longer part of the exam, and are simply offered on a list of options for a required research project.
And even that list, in a nod to local laws, “can be refined by local states and districts.”
The expunged writers and scholars include Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia, which touts her work as “foundational in critical race theory”; Roderick Ferguson, a Yale professor who has written about queer social movements; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author who has made the case for reparations for slavery. Gone, too, is bell hooks, the writer who shaped discussions about race, feminism and class.
A.P. exams are deeply embedded in the American education system. Students take the courses and exams to show their academic prowess when applying to college. Most four-year colleges and universities grant college credit for students who score high enough on an A.P. exam. And more than a million public high school students graduating in 2021 took at least one A.P. exam.
But the fracas over the exam raises questions about whether the African American Studies course, as modified, fulfills its mission of mimicking a college-level course, which usually expects students to analyze secondary sources and take on contentious topics.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, said the College Board had come up with a smart strategy by not eradicating the “touchy parts,” but rather making them optional.
“DeSantis likes to make noise and he’s running for president,” Mr. Finn said. “But they’ve been getting feedback from all over the place in the 60 schools they’ve been piloting this in. I think it’s a way of dealing with the United States at this point, not just DeSantis. Some of these things they might want to teach in New York, but not Dallas. Or San Francisco but not St. Petersburg.”