Arkansas educators examine revised AP African American Studies curriculum

College Board released an updated framework for the course Wednesday
Photo: Steven Brewer, C.C. 2.0

Arkansas schools offering an AP African American Studies pilot are examining course revisions released Wednesday as they consider whether to offer the class next year, pending state approval.

College Board, the organization that administers Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams, asked experts to revisit the course “amid intense public debate over the course,” according to a press release. AP African American Studies, which officially launches in the 2024-25 academic year, is in its second pilot year and was last revised in February.

Approximately 13,000 students are participating in the pilot this year at nearly 700 schools, including six in Arkansas. 

Thirty-seven students are enrolled in the course at two North Little Rock School District schools. Communications coordinator Dustin Barnes said they intend to offer the course in the 2024-25 academic year based on student interest and Arkansas Department of Education approval. 

“We will gauge student interest when they’re making schedules for next school year,” Barnes said. “If [the] course has high interest, then we will offer it.” 

Jacksonville North Pulaski School District Communications Director Cheesa Williams said Wednesday the district plans to continue offering the course. 

“As of today, there have not been any new developments,” she said. “Our scholars and teachers are moving forward with the course.”

Jacksonville High School students just completed the second unit of this year’s course, which is being taught by Michael Dion, whose responsibilities include submitting “extensive surveys quarterly to the College Board,” Williams said.

Seventeen students are enrolled at eStem Public Charter Schools, where Executive Director of Operations Jessi Forster said officials are still in the process of making a decision for next year. 

The Academies at Jonesboro High and Little Rock Central High School, two of 60 schools included in the pilot’s initial year, did not respond Wednesday.

In response to questions about the process and timeline for approving a new AP course, Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said, “We are focused right now on finishing the first semester of this school year. We don’t have anything new to report about the pilot at this time.”

The AP Program enables high school students to pursue college-level studies in 38 subjects and the opportunity to earn college credit based on AP exam scores. 

College Board officials said early credit support from hundreds of institutions surpassed expectations and they expect more colleges to offer credit when final course reviews are completed in the spring.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville plans to accept AP African American Studies course credit for students passing the AP exam with a 3 or higher, as it does other AP courses, Director of Media Relations and Core Communications John Thomas said Wednesday.

AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. 

Content Controversy

AP African American Studies gained national attention when the Florida Department of education sent a letter to the College Board in January rejecting the course. 

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation last year that restricts race and gender conversations in schools and workplaces. A federal judge blocked the law last year and an appeal of the ruling was rejected in March.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order in January that prohibits “indoctrination” and critical race theory in schools. Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.

In August, Arkansas education advocates, state lawmakers, students and the NAACP decried the pilot’s removal from the state’s Course Code Management System days before the start of the school year. 

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva defended the decision, telling the Advocate then that it’s still a pilot and “was listed in error last year.” Oliva said state education officials can review the course once it’s finalized and decide whether it should be considered for approval in Arkansas. 

Course approval by the Arkansas Department of Education is necessary for any courses used to satisfy the 38 courses required by the Standards of Accreditation and/or to meet any of the 22 required units for graduation that do not have an approved Arkansas Curriculum Framework, according to ADE’s website

Sanders and Oliva assured lawmakers the pilot would be offered to completion during the 2023-24 academic year. 

State law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics, so until the education department gets clarity about the course, “we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law,” Mundell said in August.

According to a statement emailed to the Advocate, African American Studies has been one of the most widely requested additions to the AP Program for years, and College Board officials “are deeply encouraged by the groundswell of support.” 

“College Board’s priority is making the course available to as many students as possible,” the statement reads. “Our local teams are working to understand and evaluate the different processes states use to make new courses available to students. We know students across the country are eager to take this course.”

Revised curriculum

AP African American Studies is an interdisciplinary course that draws from a variety of fields — including history, the arts and science — to explore contributions and experiences of African Americans, according to College Board.

Framework revisions released Wednesday are primarily focused on five objectives: 

  • Increasing the alignment of the course content with the corresponding college courses students will receive college credit for.
  • Balancing introducing students to the most important topics in the discipline while maintaining time for teacher and student choice in topics for further exploration.
  • Responding to student and teacher feedback to support context, comprehension, or understanding.
  • Creating a more robust source base for students to engage with an array of voices, perspectives, and source types.
  • Improving the clarity and precision of the prose.

The final course represents more than three years of “rigorous development work” by nearly 300 African American Studies scholars, high school AP teachers and experts within the AP Program, according to College Board.

One of the course advisers is Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and past national president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. 

“The revised AP course in African American Studies brilliantly meets the many thousand requests by high school students for college-level research and discovery, as well as for creativity and balanced engagement with the multifaceted Black experience,” Higginbotham said in a statement. “It represents interdisciplinary learning at its best.”

The revised framework includes the reinstatement of some subject matter that was removed or listed as optional in the February outline, such as intersectionality. 

According to the updated coursework, intersectionality is a term introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1990s that is “a framework for understanding Black women’s distinct experiences through the interactions of their social, economic, and political identities with systems of inequality and privilege.”

Sanders’ spokeswoman Alexa Henning in August called intersectionality “a cornerstone of Critical Race Theory.”

“Intersectionality teaches students to consider each other based on immutable differences, such as race, sex, and ability, rather than the content of their character,” she said in a statement.

The revised curriculum also includes additional sources for the Tulsa Race Massacre, while the Black Lives Movement remains an optional topic.

This story first appeared in Arkansas Advocate and is being republished through a Creative Commons License. See the original story here .

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