The Advanced Placement program has long provided a stepping stone to college-level work for high school students. But as a growing number of states enact bans or restrictions on teaching about “divisive” or “controversial” topics in K-12 schools, questions are rising over how AP coursework will be impacted, particularly in subjects such as U.S. History or African American Studies, the newest course in development.
How has the College Board—the organization that runs the AP program—responded to those questions? Well, it’s complicated.
On the one hand, in a statement to Education Week on Jan. 18 the College Board says it is “not aware of any instances in which state requirements conflict with the standards of college-level AP courses.”
But on March 2, the organization sent AP teachers a reminder of program principles they must adhere to. If instruction is censored, the College Board says, students could end up losing AP credit.
The College Board sets the required teaching topics—and in some cases, the required foundational texts—for all AP courses. A school must prove that their AP courses meet these requirements to get a legal license for AP authorization of the course.
For instance, an AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher must assign the reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” essay, College Board says. But if that teacher chooses to omit that required text from their authorized AP U.S. Government and Politics course—be it in fear of crossing a state law limiting classroom discussions on racism, fear of parent pushback, or some other reason—the course would then lose its AP license and the AP designation would be removed from students’ transcripts.
The AP Program has an annual course audit process in which principals and teachers submit their proposed AP course syllabus for review by college professors to get AP authorization, the College Board says. In cases where required topics of authorized courses are omitted, parents, students, and educators can report it through the AP course audit help line.
While the College Board sets the required topics, it does not specify how to go about teaching them. An AP U.S. History teacher must cover the “causes and effects of the victory of the [United States] and its allies over the Axis powers in World War II,” but which leaders and battles to focus on and how to present these examples in class would be up to the teacher, the organization says.
The lingering questions on how and what to teach—such as how or whether to discuss current events in a history class to help students connect the dots between past and present—has some teachers on edge. For instance, when talking about the history of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement, would it be too controversial to link it to the Black Lives Matter movement?
“I guess there’s a nervousness that I’ve never had in my 12 years of teaching,” said Scott Frank, an AP Psychology and International Baccalaureate History of the Americas teacher in Brownsville, Texas, who teaches AP U.S. History material in the latter course.
What AP stands for amid growing legislation
The College Board’s latest public statement on what the AP program stands for—including its opposition to censorship and indoctrination—comes as Florida is set to become the latest state to pass what is commonly referred to as anti-critical race theory laws.
In a largely conservative push for more than year, at least 14 states have enacted bans or restrictions on how to teach topics of racism and sexism in K-12 schools and the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that posits that racism is systemic as opposed to only individual acts of discrimination. State officials in favor of such bills have said they are aimed at preventing teachers from telling students what to think or encouraging them to see division among racial and other groups.
Much of the College Board’s AP program principles seem to address such language, emphasizing the program’s focus on factual information and multiple viewpoints, and offering a defense of AP coursework.
For instance, Florida’s House bill 7, championed by and expected to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would prohibit teaching in a way that would lead to students feeling “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of past actions by members of the same race, sex, or national origin.
The AP’s fourth principle addresses this, stating that “AP students are not required to feel certain ways about themselves or the course content. AP courses instead develop students’ abilities to assess the credibility of sources, draw conclusions, and make up their own minds.”
Texas’ law says teachers who discuss a “particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs ... shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
The AP statement of principles says “AP students are expected to analyze different perspectives from their own, and no points on an AP Exam are awarded for agreement with a viewpoint.” It adds that “the perspectives and contributions of the full range of AP students are sought and considered.”
The AP principles also emphasize how course requirements and sample tests are available to the public; how parents and students freely choose to enroll in AP courses, and how AP courses are rooted in presenting students with facts, from which they can draw their own conclusions.
Additionally, the College Board said “the AP program convenes scholars committed to nonpartisan content to develop politically balanced AP course frameworks.”
In AP U.S. History, for instance, students must cover the topics of immigration and migration in the Gilded Age as well as responses to immigration during that time period, the failure of Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement, as well as World War II and the Declaration of Independence, among many other topics.
Where teachers stand
While the new Florida bill speaks to avoiding student discomfort in discussing the country’s racist past, Michele Mar, an AP U.S. History teacher at the School for Advanced Studies North Campus high school at Miami Dade College, said in her more than 30 years of teaching, including several years in the AP course, she has never had a student come forward to say something taught in class offended them or caused discomfort.
Her class, which has many students with parents from other countries, does delve into moments of U.S. history that can at times shock her students. Two examples are the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese American concentration camps, she said.
Mar, who was part of the national cohort of teachers who worked with the College Board to record lesson videos during remote learning as an extra resource for teachers and students, said the frameworks the board created for the course are comprehensive so that even though students don’t get a lot of time to dig deeply into every topic, they walk away with a broad understanding of American history beginning roughly around 1491 through the present.
Mar said she’s not worried about needing to change how she teaches her course after the new state legislation since she sticks to facts, not opinions—partly because she has less than a year to cover a dense amount of material with students whose priority is to pass an exam to get college credit.
“I don’t go into my opinion,” Mar said. “We look at [primary and secondary historical] documents, look at facts, we look at what has been said. We look at past stories.”
Frank, in Texas, is also staying the course in terms of how he teaches U.S. history to his students.
Yet with the passage of the Texas law last year banning schools from, among other things, requiring teachers to discuss controversial issues, Frank worries that a student could misinterpret something he said or someone could walk in and misconstrue a classroom discussion of current events linked to history.
He said he sees his job at IDEA Frontier College Preparatory in Brownsville, Texas, as preparing students to be critical thinkers in and out of school, which involves connecting history lessons to current events. But now he’s anxious over whether a current event is too controversial to discuss in class, and if he should avoid it altogether.
When teaching about the past, he gives students multiple lenses. For instance, when teaching about the Era of Good Feelings in the United States following the War of 1812, he had students contemplate what that time was like for industrialists versus a poor farmer out West or someone who was enslaved.
He’s delved into topics like lynchings, the Trail of Tears, the Vietnam War and so on. And when he does so, he has found his students don’t express hatred or discomfort with the country.
“When you’re honest with the things that are not very pleasant, and you have a conversation, and you read the literature and look at the primary sources, you have students that come around to loving this country even more, because of what it’s been through,” he said. “It’s like that crucible. You’ve been tested through this.”
His hope is that more conversations rooted in historical evidence can happen in classrooms across the country. His fear is that the growing number of bills and laws will intimidate teachers to avoid helping students learn how to connect the dots between the past and present.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as College Board Warns Against Censoring Its AP Courses