Social Studies

The Florida AP Psychology Controversy, Explained

By Ileana Najarro — August 22, 2023 4 min read
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The Florida Department of Education earlier this month cleared up confusion over whether the College Board’s Advanced Placement Psychology course could be taught in full without defying state law prohibiting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The answer? Yes. Yet some school districts still opted for alternatives to the course.

The back-and-forth over the legality of the course so close to the start of the school year marked yet another instance of the state’s tensions with the nonprofit College Board after the state banned a new course on African American studies at the start of the year for allegedly defying state law restricting instruction on race.

How confusion around AP Psychology arose

AP Psychology requires instruction on the topic of gender and sex, which the state had initially requested be edited out, the College Board said earlier this year. The nonprofit test administrator refused.

On Aug. 3, the organization issued a statement saying the state “effectively banned” the course after state officials told district superintendents that the section on gender and sex could not be taught. The College Board reiterated to schools that the full course must be taught to be considered an AP course eligible for college credit.

A day later, Manny Diaz, the state commissioner of education, 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.” But Diaz didn’t specify what he meant by “age and developmentally appropriate.”

It wasn’t until Aug. 9—a day before many Florida school districts began their school year—in another letter to superintendents that Diaz said “It is the Department of Education’s stance that the learning target [in AP Psychology], 6.P ‘describe how sex and gender influence socialization and other aspects of development’ within topic 6.7, can be taught consistent with Florida law.”

“AP Psychology has been available to schools and districts for 30 years. In that time, no state has banned the course,” the College Board said in an email to Education Week. “On Wednesday, Aug. 9, the Florida Department of Education issued a new letter, providing clear guidance to Florida educators, parents, and students that the course can be taught in its entirety.”

How school districts have responded

The Miami-Dade County and Leon County school districts both stuck with AP Psychology for this school year, with Hillsborough County Public Schools joining them after reversing course.

The Hillsborough district had initially directed students to the alternative Cambridge International psychology course, which also offers students potential college credit, but later clarified it would continue to offer the AP version following Diaz’s Aug. 9 clarification.

“Our principals will reach out to students who originally enrolled [in AP Psychology] to offer them the course,” a spokesperson said in an email.

The district will also offer the International Baccalaureate version and a dual enrollment version as well.

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At Orange County Public Schools, however, the commissioner’s clarification came too late.

“To be ready for our first day of school, Aug. 10, principals worked with school counselors and families to choose a replacement course for students,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Pivoting to Cambridge AICE Psychology 1 AS Level or IB Psychology 1, 2 or 3 assured our teachers could teach the prescribed content without fear of a professional standards review.”

How college credit-providing organizations responded

The Cambridge International organization said in a statement that the Florida Department of Education in May 2023 asked it to review its course for compliance with state law and found nothing that would contravene it.

“It is entirely untrue to state that Cambridge agreed to exclude references to gender identity and sexual orientation,” the statement read. “As a global organization, Cambridge International supports schools and teachers in more than 160 countries to deliver the highest quality education while ensuring they have the ability to navigate local norms and requirements without disadvantaging students.”

Schools that shifted to offering the International Baccalaureate version of Psychology this year were pre-existing IB schools, said Robert Kelty, head of outreach, development, and government relations for North America for the IB program.

“We’re not a course catalog,” Kelty said. “We’re a comprehensive program. So you can’t just teach IB psychology at a non-IB school overnight without really having a commitment to the holistic vision of what makes us unique.”

The IB course, which is taught with an inquiry-based model, is designed with flexibility in mind allowing Florida teachers to create the course and stay in compliance with state law, he added.

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