College & Workforce Readiness Q&A

College Board Leader Discusses Controversy Over AP Courses

By Ileana Najarro — August 28, 2023 10 min read
Trevor Packer, head of the College Board’s AP Program speaks at the AP Annual Conference in Seattle, Wash. on July 20, 2023.
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The College Board has been in the headlines repeatedly over the last year.

The nonprofit’s Advanced Placement courses—which look good on college applications and offer students a chance to score cost-saving college credits in high school—have become the subject of pitched debates in a hyper-politicized education landscape.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned the organization’s new AP African American Studies pilot course for allegedly defying state law that took effect in July 2022 and that limits instruction on topics of race. The state also butted heads with the College Board over its pre-existing AP Psychology course and whether it adhered to state law limiting instruction on gender and sexual orientation.

Arkansas education officials have also moved to eliminate high school credit eligibility from the pilot African American studies course.

Trevor Packer, head of the AP program for the College Board, recently spoke with Education Week about these concerns and the broader future of the program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where does the College Board stand now in the national education landscape?

We’re certainly aware of the political climate. But in many ways, our position is a simple one … because we are taking the same position that we’ve taken since the program began in 1956, which is, AP courses contain the concepts that are required for students to successfully place ahead in college, to receive that advanced placement that is the name of the program, or to be prepared for career entry. And so if the subject requires students to learn particular, but fundamental or foundational, topics in order to skip that class in college, we gather dozens and dozens of syllabi from colleges across the nation, from large public universities, from small liberal arts colleges, from religious institutions, and we look for the common ground across all of those college syllabi. And when we can find that a topic appears in virtually all college syllabi, that does become a required topic in an AP course.

So when a course like AP Psychology includes a required topic on gender and sexual orientation, that is simply because colleges require that topic in order for students to finish that class, receive the college credit, and move on to the next stage of their career progression. [Psychologists say,] “in our profession, we would never allow someone to enter a counseling room as a psychologist without having a basic understanding of the psychology of gender and sexual orientation.”

Now we’re big believers in parental choice. This is one of the reasons we make our curriculum available to the public. Because many schools and many locations for a long, long time have said we can’t censor a class here. But parents, you have a right to know and a right to choose whether or not your student, your child, takes this class.

We as an organization have no control if current politicians want to take away or proceed to take away parental choice, or parental rights, or local control over whether or not a student enrolls in a particular elective AP course. What we do have control over is to stay on the path that AP has always been on, and ensure that AP reflects the core concepts required for college credit in each discipline.

How is the College Board preparing for any possible future course bans or related efforts? Would the College Board ever pull out of a state?

I want to acknowledge the sort of pain and sorrow we would feel to ever not be able to serve students and teachers that have historically participated in an AP subject with great success and great fervor, great excitement, and great results. So we worry deeply about any decisions that will be made in any area at a local school level, at a district level, or at a state level to say, “We will not allow in our area, a topic to be taught in a class that is required for college credit.”

Colleges have depended upon the AP designation for 68 years because it means the same thing regardless of whether a student is studying in rural Maine or the Rio Grande Valley. It signals that a student has learned, for example, in AP English to analyze character. And so, if for some reason it became politically contentious somewhere to analyze characters in a literary text—if a local pronouncement were made that in our school district, no characters can be analyzed in literary texts—that leaves us no choice but to say, “We are the legal owners of the AP trademark of the AP designation. And you cannot put that on a student’s transcript and signal to colleges that the student has developed that skill of analyzing characters in literary texts.”

We don’t specify all the novels that the student must read, we don’t specify texts. Where AP specifies is at the same level that colleges specify. What we can see as we scan these college syllabi is that a required topic in college history surveys is an understanding of how the Constitution emerged and the relationship with the Constitution to the Bill of Rights. So if a school were to say, “We’re not going teach the Bill of Rights in AP U.S. History this year,” that is something that is at a high enough conceptual level, and that appears so consistently in college syllabi, that we would have to say you can’t label the course AP.

If a district or school is worried or is uncertain about our requirements, or if they simply need information to raise community awareness and understanding, we make it a top priority to respond. We can make sure that teachers, district leaders, school leaders understand what the material actually says and what the policies are.

We’ve seen districts band together and say, “Okay, we recognize that this topic could be considered controversial in our state. So what we will do as a group of six districts is we will build a lesson plan together, and we’ll meet with our state and show the state that this is an age-appropriate way to teach a college-level topic.”

We don’t specify in AP Psychology how to teach about gender and sexual orientation, we don’t dictate the distinct readings that students need to do, we certainly don’t dictate beliefs that students need to have about gender. AP isn’t focused on beliefs people should have. AP focuses on how psychologists define and understand psychological developments related to gender and sexual orientation. And so within that objective, there’s a lot of appropriate flexibility about how schools do that.

Another approach that we’ve seen that’s effective is for local communities to simply assert the value of parental choice to say, “We value our ability as parents to make choices on behalf of our children. And so we want our state to support our right as parents to choose. And while we want organizations like the College Board or other programs to be public about what’s in their courses, so that we can make educated choices as parents, we don’t need a government to take away those rights from us as parents.”

We’ve seen other cases where local school boards have simply reviewed guidelines from the states and reviewed their own authority and decisionmaking rules and have made local decisions that assert their authority as school boards to make appropriate choices for their children.

How does the College Board plan to increase the representation of Black and Native American students in AP courses nationwide?

Editor’s note: Data from the 2021 graduating class shows that the population of Hispanic and Asian students taking AP tests that year was either on par or higher than their makeup of the graduating class. Black and American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander were underrepresented. White students were also slightly underrepresented as test takers, though overrepresented among test takers scoring high enough receiving college credit.

Native American students are 20 percent less likely to have AP classes in their school than Black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, and white students that have very similar levels of AP [courses available at their schools]. A solution of saying, let’s just promote more online AP courses to them, while noble, hasn’t worked. Students benefit from being in a community of similar students that are all in this AP challenge together with a teacher who’s coaching and mentoring them and encouraging them.

We don’t fully understand why there is that significant difference between access for Native American students and every other group. So we are onboarding a team that has expertise in Native education. Why are these courses less available? What would it take to address first and foremost the availability issue. Because if the course isn’t even there, all these other challenges of access and performance and completion aren’t even on the radar screen.

For Black students … there is a very different issue: Why are Black students not being encouraged to enroll in these courses? Why have they not been welcomed? Is there something cultural here? Is there a readiness issue? We certainly see examples of adult bias affecting these things.

So raising awareness of those biases, providing detailed data reports to schools on the degree to which their AP classrooms look like the hallways of their schools, the lunch rooms of their schools, is a strategy we’re pursuing. We’re releasing this fall, a new school recognition program, we’ve never done this before. But every high school in the country will receive an evaluation from us as to whether or not their AP classrooms look like the demographics of their school. That will give a very public registry for the first time as to whether or not equity is happening.

We’ve seen with Hispanic, students who are now represented in AP at rates similar to white students [in some states], part of that is because of very deliberate efforts by organizations like the Texas Education Agency to offer AP Spanish earlier, as a way of signaling to students, you have what it takes to be on a path to college and earn college credits. So the Texas Education Agency very deliberately provided AP Spanish to 9th grade students. ..., when students take an AP in 9th or 10th grade and do well in it, it boosts dramatically their likelihood of taking other APs in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade.

That’s very much one of the reasons we chose to develop an AP African American studies course. We knew the course would be controversial. But it felt more important to us to do right by this discipline to signal that this discipline can be as important to take in high school as AP World History or AP European History. And by placing this course in 9th or 10th grade, will it have the effect that AP Spanish has had on bringing a much larger group of Black students into AP earlier in a way that makes this their culture and not a foreign culture for them.

We’ve certainly seen in this very first year of the pilot with the course overwhelmingly serving Black students, providing many students that would have never considered themselves AP students, who have had no other AP courses before, their first and only AP course to date.

Can you share any other details of planned updates to the AP program or College Board programs?

We are providing digital testing options for AP subjects. We’ll be rolling that out over the next five to 10 years in each subject. That will also provide some much needed flexibility for schools that are on block schedules that would want to be able to administer AP exams at the end of the fall semester for courses to end on that fall block, schools that would like a little bit more instructional time in the spring because they don’t begin school until after Labor Day and feel like they’re behind other schools.

We are shifting towards incorporating projects into the AP exam score. Five AP courses, including AP African American Studies, base their exam score not only on the timed exam, but on a project that the students do. We really value a timed proctored exam because [with] the rise of generative AI, ChatGPT, and other things, it is powerful to have a proctored moment where students are doing work independent of all other supports and influences. But on the other hand, that’s actually a liability of AP, to base all your college credit on just one exam. In a real college class, you build your college credit over a variety of different things you do in the class, not just a big test.

We’re trying to learn from what AP does well to better serve students in the career and technical education space. We have designed a prototype of a new program called Career Kickstart, that is focused on helping students that may not be aiming for a four-year college or two-year college, who may want to immediately enter the workforce to develop some fundamental credentials in high growth career areas like medicine, health sciences, technology, and so on. We’re beginning that pilot this fall with schools in a number of different states.

When can the public expect to see the updated AP African American Studies framework?

The committee is nearing the completion of their work on the framework and they plan to release them to the public later this fall.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as College Board Leader Discusses Controversy Over AP Courses

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