AP African American studies course’s new framework released; pilot previously removed from Arkansas’ course code catalog

A workman removes a restroom sign at Montgomery (Ala.) Municipal Airport in this Jan. 5, 1962 file photo. The sign was being removed in compliance with a federal court order banning segregation. However, city officials at the time said that the airport's toilets, water fountains and restaurant would be closed if federal officials made a concerted attempt to integrate the facility. "Disenfranchisement and Jim Crow Laws," which addresses segregated water fountains and restrooms, is part of the national College Board's Advanced Placement African American studies course, specifically topic 3.5 in unit 3, "The Practice of Freedom." (AP/File)
A workman removes a restroom sign at Montgomery (Ala.) Municipal Airport in this Jan. 5, 1962 file photo. The sign was being removed in compliance with a federal court order banning segregation. However, city officials at the time said that the airport's toilets, water fountains and restaurant would be closed if federal officials made a concerted attempt to integrate the facility. "Disenfranchisement and Jim Crow Laws," which addresses segregated water fountains and restrooms, is part of the national College Board's Advanced Placement African American studies course, specifically topic 3.5 in unit 3, "The Practice of Freedom." (AP/File)

The national College Board that is producing an AP African American studies course released its revised framework for the class Wednesday morning, following months of what the nonprofit called “intense public debate” over the class.

The update, which comes roughly four months after the Arkansas Department of Education sparked national attention by removing the class from its course code listings, adds new sections to the framework and merges others together. It includes new sources, removes several previously included ones and makes some that were once mandatory now optional.

“Amid intense public debate over the course, College Board asked subject-matter experts in the AP program, scholars, and experienced AP teachers to revisit the course, consider the vast field of African American Studies and determine the content required for a course reflective of the student experience in an introductory, college-level course,” the nonprofit said in a news release.

AP African American studies is currently in its second year as a pilot course. The pilot is set to end in 2024, and the national nonprofit plans to allow all schools to begin offering Advanced Placement African American studies, using the newly revised framework, during the 2024-2025 school year.

Although the state Education Department removed the course from its code listings in August, with agency Secretary Jacob Oliva saying it didn’t meet “rules that have long been in place” regarding indoctrination, all six schools that planned to offer the pilot elected to continue doing so for local credit. The schools are Little Rock Central High School, North Little Rock High School, North Little Rock Center Of Excellence, The Academies at Jonesboro High and Jacksonville High School and eStem High School.

They are among nearly 700 schools in more than 40 states and Washington, D.C. piloting the course this school year. Roughly 13,000 students are represented, according to College Board.

Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said in an email Tuesday that his district plans to continue to offer the course during the next school year. Spokespersons for the other districts did not immediately confirm whether they intend to do the same.

AP African American studies is an “interdisciplinary course that examines the diversity of African American experiences through direct encounters with varied subjects,” according to the framework’s opening pages. During the course, students will explore topics ranging “from early African kingdoms to the ongoing challenges and achievements of the contemporary moment.”

The framework itself “defines the course content” and what students will encounter on the AP exam. According to the news release, it “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.”

The revisions included in Wednesday’s update largely focus on five objectives, College Board said. Those objectives are:

• Increasing the alignment of the course content with the corresponding college courses for which students will receive college credit.

• 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.

Holly Stepp, spokeswoman for College Board, said many of the revisions are in response to what students and teachers reported wanting to see in the course, such as new sections on sports, music, film and television. They also addressed concerns from college and university faculty who wanted to ensure “certain fundamental concepts were required in the course,” she said in an email.

“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,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and an advisor on the course, said in the release. “It represents interdisciplinary learning at its best.”

CHANGES

The 294-page revised framework adds a number of new sources and sections, while removing or merging others. Some sources in the updated framework are now optional.

For instance, in the first unit, “Origins of the African diaspora,” the first section, “What is African American Studies?” removes two sources: “Medicine and Transportation,” by Thelma Johnson Streat; and “Outcast,” by Claude McKay. It adds two new sources: “Photo of Black Student Union Strike for Black Studies at San Francisco State” and “Schedule of Courses for Black and Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College.” It also adds three optional sources: “Blk History Month,” by Nikki Giovanni; “History of Black Studies at Washington University in St. Louis,” and “What is Black Studies?” an excerpt from a documentary titled “Black and Cuba.”

The section under the new framework will require two days of instruction, instead of the previous one.

A section titled, “The Concept of Race and the Reproduction of Status” is changed in the December framework to “The Social Construction of Race and the Reproduction of Status.” One of the learning objectives for this section in the December framework states, “Explain how partus sequitur ventrem affected African American families and informed the emergence of racial taxonomies in the United States” and “Explain how racial concepts and classifications emerged alongside definitions of status.” Under “Essential Knowledge” for the section, the document states, within the discipline of African American studies and other fields, the concept of race “is considered socially constructed, not based on clear biological distinctions,” and that “[c]oncepts and classifications of racial types emerged in tandem with systems of enslavement and oppression.”

A section on “Black Women and Movements in the 20th Century” is retitled in the updated framework as “The Black Feminist Movement, Womanism, and Intersectionality.” The framework describes intersectionality as “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.”

A section titled “Overlapping Dimensions of Black Life” was also updated, with its title now listed as “Interlocking Systems of Oppression.” According to the framework, interlocking systems of oppression “describes how social categories (e.g., race, gender, class, sexuality, ability) are interconnected, and considers how their interaction with social systems creates unequal outcomes for individuals. The concept examines interrelated contexts, systems and institutions that facilitate oppression or privilege in many areas of society, including education, health, housing, incarceration, and wealth gaps.”

The revised framework also features a “Further Explorations Week,” during which teachers select a topic for class focus over the course of five days. Possible topics listed include “Contemporary Grassroots Organizing,” “The Reparations Debate,” “Incarceration and Abolition,” and “Black Women Writers and Filmmakers.”

The minimum number of traditional class periods required for the course increased in the December framework from 122 to 135.

The revisions announced Wednesday weren’t the first changes made to the course. The second-year pilot framework, released in early February, came after the class drew criticism from Republican Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis of Florida. DeSantis’ administration rejected the course in January, accusing it of indoctrination and violating state legislation dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.”

The February framework removed much of the material that drew the Florida governor’s ire, including content related to critical race theory, reparations and Black feminism. That move in turn spurred criticism from groups that accused College Board of watering down the course.

College Board sent a news release a short time later admitting that, though they were proud of the course, “we have made mistakes in the rollout that are being exploited.”

“We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander, magnified by the DeSantis administration’s subsequent comments, that African American Studies ‘lacks educational value,’” the group said in the Feb. 11 news release. “Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field.”

College Board said the official framework was a “significant improvement, rather than a watering down,” adopting a model that included three weeks dedicated to a research project of a student’s choosing and ensuring the class has “concrete examples of the foundational concepts in this discipline,” while giving educators “the flexibility to teach the essential content without putting their livelihoods at risk.”

In April, College Board announced plans to make further changes to the framework. In a news release, they said its “dual access goals” of ensuring students access to “a discipline that has not been widely available to high school students, and access for as many students as possible” came into conflict. At the time, College Board said the updated framework would ensure students taking the course would get “the most holistic possible introduction to African American Studies.”

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

Oliva defended the Education Department’s decision to remove AP African American studies from its code listings, pointing in mid-August to what he described as “substantive changes” between the pilot program’s first and second years, saying alterations leave questions about the nature of the course.

“We don’t know what sources students have access to because it’s new,” he said.

In a letter to school superintendents offering the course, Oliva said the agency “may not comply with Arkansas law, which does not permit teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory (CRT).” He pointed to themes in the second-year pilot’s framework that included “intersections of identity” and “resistance and resilience” as examples.

The two themes remain in the revised framework, though they have been edited slightly. The updated “intersections of identity section” now includes a line that reads, “African Americans and Black communities throughout the African diaspora are not a monolith, and the course emphasizes the various ways categories of identity operate together to shape individuals’ experiences and perspectives. In line with the discipline of African American Studies, students should develop the skill of considering how the intersections of identity impact the sources, debates and historical processes they explore.”

Alexa Henning, spokeswoman for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office, said in August that intersectionality is “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,” and is banned under the LEARNS Act, she said.

The LEARNS Act requires the state Department of Education to identify policies and materials that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory.”

The law states the secretary of the state Education Department “shall amend, annul or alter the rules, policies, materials or communications” that conflict with the indoctrination prohibitions.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education asked the College Board in January about the content of the course. At the time, the division’s questions were prompted by executive orders Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued on her first day in office, including one “to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”

Similar restrictions were later placed in Act 237 of 2023, the LEARNS Act. The law includes codification of Sanders’ executive order on critical race theory, which requires the state Education Department to review policies and materials that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory.”

Though Sanders signed both measures earlier this year, phrasing in each resembles a federal memo and executive order signed under former President Donald Trump’s administration as far back as 2020, as well as Republican-sponsored legislation in other states.

College Board has denied that the course indoctrinates students. In a statement released shortly after the class was removed from code listings, the organization said it shared educators’ “surprise, confusion, and disappointment at this new guidance that the course won’t count toward graduation credits or weighted the same as other AP courses offered in the state.”

The decision also drew criticism from such groups as the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP to members of the Little Rock Nine.

Education Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking an update on whether the agency planned to revise its course code catalog to reintroduce the AP class for the next school year.

Stepp said College Board’s teams are “still evaluating and understanding individual state processes,” and that they will follow states’ processes for course adoption.

“That process is only just begun because the framework is only now finalized,” she said.

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