Social Studies

Florida vs. College Board: The Fight Over AP Psychology Puts Students in Limbo

By Sarah Schwartz — August 04, 2023 | Updated: August 04, 2023 6 min read
College Board President David Coleman attends an announcement event on March 5, 2014, in Austin, where College Board officials announced updates for the SAT college entrance exam.
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Clarification: This story was updated to clarify descriptions of psychology courses offered by Cambridge and the International Baccalaureate program.
Updated: This article was updated to include a statement from the Florida Commissioner of Education released shortly after this story was published.

The College Board, the organization that oversees the Advanced Placement program, announced this week that Florida has “effectively banned AP Psychology in the state.”

It’s the latest development in an ongoing battle between the College Board and the Florida Department of Education over the course, a fight that hinges on a Sunshine State law that prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-12.

In an Aug. 3 statement, the College Board said that Florida’s education department told district superintendents that state law prevents teachers from covering required AP Psychology topics related to gender and sexuality.

“The state has said districts are free to teach AP Psychology only if it excludes any mention of these essential topics,” the statement reads.

The College Board says the course can’t be taught without covering these topics and still remain eligible for college credit. But the Florida education department blames the College Board, which is holding firm on the course requirements.

“The department didn’t ‘ban’ the course. The course remains listed in Florida’s Course Code Directory for the 2023-24 school year,” said Cassie Palelis, the deputy director of communications for the agency, in a statement.

“We encourage the College Board to stop playing games with Florida students and continue to offer the course and allow teachers to operate accordingly,” she said.

The day after the College Board released its statement, Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. sent a letter to superintendents claiming that the course could still be “taught in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate.” The education agency did not immediately respond to a question about whether “in its entirety” would include instruction on gender and sexuality.

The standoff demonstrates the significant effects that curriculum laws like Florida’s are having on students. AP Psychology is popular, with more than 28,000 students taking it statewide in the 2022-23 school year, according to the College Board.

And the conflict has left district leaders and teachers, some of whom welcome students back to their buildings in less than a week, without a clear path forward.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents said in a statement it would continue to work with districts that want to offer the course, maintaining that the department “has not banned AP Psychology.” But it also noted that districts’ plans could include offering “an alternative college level course.”

In at least one district, that’s what leadership has decided to do.

The Pinellas district has enrolled the 1,300 students slated to take AP Psychology in Cambridge AICE Psychology, another college-level course, local news station WFLA reported. Cambridge is a competitor to the AP Program and to the International Baccalaureate, but has a smaller U.S. presence than the other two programs.

It’s a decision that could be complicated for staff, said Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association.

“Teachers are trained and certified to teach AP classes,” Spar said. “It’s not going to be very easy to shift those subjects to other subjects.”

The battle over AP Psychology

For decades, the AP Psychology course has included instruction on gender and sexuality.

In the current iteration of the course, the topics come up in at least two places. Gender and sexual orientation are discussed as part of a developmental psychology unit. The social psychology unit also mentions gender, under the topic of: “How social and cultural categories like gender and race can impact self-concept and behavior.”

AP’s course frameworks are developed in consultation with college professors, and while not a curriculum, the frameworks are detailed and can span dozens of pages. Removing topics would effectively disqualify them as college-equivalent, the College Board has said.

In June, the College Board said that the Florida Department of Education had requested changes to the AP Psychology course to comply with state law. The organization refused.

Covering these topics is essential to the course, the College Board reiterated in its statement this week.

“As we shared in June, we cannot modify AP Psychology in response to regulations that would censor college-level standards for credit, placement, and career readiness,” its statement reads. “Our policy remains unchanged. Any course that censors required course content cannot be labeled ‘AP’ or ‘Advanced Placement,’ and the ‘AP Psychology’ designation cannot be utilized on student transcripts.”

The American Psychological Association agrees. Back in June, it issued a statement supporting the College Board’s decision.

“Understanding human sexuality is fundamental to psychology, and an advanced placement course that excludes the decades of science studying sexual orientation and gender identity would deprive students of knowledge they will need to succeed in their studies, in high school and beyond,” said APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., at the time.

Spar said the state dragged its feet in giving guidance to educators.

“School districts and superintendents were asking the state to give an answer on what they were supposed to do, and the state stayed silent,” Spar said—only now bringing down this “last-minute change,” he said.

‘Where does this end?’

AP courses have become a sticking point as Florida implements legislation banning teachers from covering certain topics related to gender, sexuality, and race.

Before the current battle over AP Psychology, the state’s department of education took issue with the framework for the AP African American Studies course—a new offering from the College Board, which some schools piloted during the 2022-23 school year.

In January, the Florida education department sent a letter to the College Board “indicating that the course could not be approved as written.”

The final version of the framework, released in February, omitted scholars and topics that Florida officials had criticized. The College Board contends that the changes weren’t made in response to complaints from Florida, but state officials implied that they were.

The head of the organization’s AP program has since said it was “not especially effective” at messaging around the AP African American Studies framework, and is now working to revise the course again.

The incident soured the relationship between the state and the organization.

“We have made the mistake of treating [the department] with the courtesy we always accord to an education agency, but they have instead exploited this courtesy for their political agenda,” the College Board said, in a February 2023 statement.

With all of these fights, “it’s students who suffer,” said Spar.

AP courses can make students more competitive for colleges, and high scores on the exams can win them scholarships and credits that can count towards their degrees.

“By limiting the AP courses that these students have, it makes colleges more expensive for students. It may put it out of reach for some kids,” Spar said.

He’s heard from teachers who are worried that Florida’s bans may spread to further courses. The Cambridge AICE Sociology course, another college-level option that’s listed in Florida’s course directory, includes discussion of gender as well.

Other providers of college level classes excluded references to gender and sexuality at Florida’s request, the College Board contended, but both of those providers, Cambridge and the International Baccalaureate program, said that they had not changed course outlines.

“No experienced educator or practitioner in our field would support the decision to make these topics off limits,” the College Board wrote, in a statement.

But these issues could continue to come up course by course, said Spar, asking, “Where does this end?”

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