AP African American Studies course won’t count toward graduation credit in Arkansas

The Department of Education didn't bar schools from offering the course, as Florida did earlier this year.
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22, 2023, in Little Rock. (Video still/State of Arkansas)

Arkansas education officials on Monday said an Advanced Placement course on African American studies won’t count toward a student’s graduation credit, prompting criticism from Black lawmakers who said the move sends the wrong message.

The Arkansas Department of Education didn’t bar schools from offering the course, as Florida did earlier this year when it told the College Board it violated state law. The department said the class, which is offered at a handful of schools in Arkansas, could still count toward students’ grade point averages.

But the Education Department said the class couldn’t be part of the state’s advanced placement course offerings since it’s still a pilot program and hasn’t been vetted by the state yet. The department cited a state law enacted this year that places restrictions on how race is taught in school but did not say the course violates those prohibitions.

“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination,” Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said in a statement.

The College Board revamped its course following Florida’s decision, but faced criticism that it was bowing to political pressure. Arkansas education officials cited the ongoing revisions.

“Without clarity, we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law,” Mundell said. When asked whether there’s anything in the course that currently raises that concern, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said that would have to be part of the review process of the final version.

The College Board website describes the course as interdisciplinary, touching on literature, arts, humanities, political science, geography and science. The pilot program debuted last school year at 60 schools across the country, and was set to expand to more this year.

Six schools were slated to offer the course in Arkansas this year, according to the College Board. They include Little Rock Central High School, known for the 1957 desegregation crisis.

The College Board on Monday said it rejected the notion its course was indoctrination.

“On this first day of school, we share in their surprise, confusion, and disappointment at this new guidance that the course won’t count toward graduation credits or weighted the same as other AP courses offered in the state,” the College Board said in a statement. “Throughout the first pilot year, we heard countless stories from the classroom about how this course opened minds, changed lives, and provided a much richer understanding of the country.”

The Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus said the move tells students that “their African American peers are not as important and not as valued.”

“This type of decision has far-reaching implications on the educational and professional success of all Arkansas youth, and we must not allow this type of inequality to persist,” Democratic Rep. Jay Richardson, the caucus’ chairman, said in a statement.

The department informed districts offering the course that it was not one of the state’s approved courses on Friday, days before classes began on Monday. The department said it been coded as a state course in error.

The move means that students who take the course won’t have the cost of the AP exam for it covered by the state like other AP courses. This year is the first an AP exam is offered for the African American studies course.

It’s unclear what the state’s decision will mean for the schools offering the program. The Little Rock School District said it will decide within the next two days its next steps. The district said Superintendent Jermall Wright “has been in direct communication with officials from the ADE to explore options that will allow our students to fully benefit from this course despite ADE’s decision.”

The Arkansas Education Department said the state has a course in African American History that will count toward high school credit, though it’s not an Advanced Placement course. The department said it’s working with districts who want to offer an honors version of that course.