State looking into content of AP course on African American studies

Black studies class prompts concerns of ‘indoctrination’

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders hands a pen to Education Secretary Jacob Oliva after signing one of her first executive orders on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked the national College Board organization about the content of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies that is being piloted in 60 schools nationwide, including two in Arkansas.

The queries about the course at Little Rock Central High and The Academies at Jonesboro High are prompted by recent executive orders -- including one "to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools" issued by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on her first day in office.

Critical race theory is defined by Wikipedia as a cross-disciplinary examination of how laws, social and political movements, and media shape -- and are shaped by -- social conceptions of race and ethnicity.

Kimberly Mundell, director of communications for the state Elementary and Secondary Education Division, said Friday that the agency has been in contact with the College Board -- the producer of the African American studies course -- to get information about the course in light of Sanders' call for a comprehensive review of instructional materials.

"We will review the information and assess the course at the end of this year's pilot to ensure students are taught factual history and that participation articulates into college credit that is beneficial to students," Mundell said.

Efforts to reach Little Rock and Jonesboro school district leaders by email late Friday afternoon for comment about the African American studies course at their schools were not successful.

The Arkansas queries about the African American studies course come not only after Sanders' executive order but also after top officials in Florida -- where the course was also being piloted -- last week rejected the course for violating that state's law prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory.

The College Board has responded that long-planned revisions to the African American studies course are set for release Wednesday, as a kickoff to what is widely recognized by schools and others as Black History Month.

The College Board has maintained that revisions are standard in developing and piloting any new Advanced Placement course.

The newly revised African American studies course is to be piloted a second year -- in the 2023-24 school year -- in anticipation of making the course available to any interested school system in the country beginning in the 2024-25 school year, leaders of the College Board say.

The College Board has long offered dozens of Advanced Placement courses with accompanying exams. The courses are in a wide range of subject areas and are meant to be academically challenging, college-level courses that give high school students the potential to earn college credit while in high school.

Generally, college credit hours or assignment to upper-level college courses is given for Advanced Placement exam scores of 3, 4 or 5 on the end-of-year exams.

Earning college credits while in high school can save on college tuition costs for a college student and allow students to proceed more quickly to upper-level courses and even early college graduation.

Sanders' Jan. 10 executive order didn't specify any particular course to be evaluated.

The governor instead directed the Arkansas education secretary "to review the rules, regulations, policies, materials, and communications of the Department of Education to identify any items that may, purposely or otherwise, promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as [critical race theory ], that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual's color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law."

Sanders' executive order further states that if any items are found "that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law," the state's education secretary is directed "to amend, annul, or alter those rules, regulations, policies, materials, or communications to remove the prohibited indoctrination."

Arkansas' education secretary is Jacob Oliva who, until he was tapped by Sanders for his role in her Cabinet, was senior chancellor for the Florida Department of Education.

The Arkansas Elementary and Secondary education division provided correspondence between the agency and the College Board regarding the course in response to an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request made by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

On Wednesday, Krystal Nail, Arkansas' program director in the Office of Gifted and Talented and Advanced Placement, wrote to Lana Sveda of the College Board saying that state agency leaders have requested additional information about the African American studies course that is being piloted in two schools, with additional schools expressing interest in joining the pilot in the 2023-24 school year.

"Concerns about the content of the course have been brought to our attention," Nail wrote. "DESE leadership is requesting additional information about the course objectives and contents.

"Given recent Executive Orders ... DESE leadership needs to immediately review course content and objectives to verify that the course will not cause any schools to be in violation. We appreciate this information be provided as soon as possible," Nail wrote.

Sveda, College Board director of state and district partnerships, responded Thursday, telling Nail that the Advanced Placement Program will release the "official framework for the AP African American Studies course" on Wednesday.

"The College Board maintains our offer to have a conversation with you and your colleagues around the framework and course," Sveda said. "Let us know if you would like to schedule a meeting."

Sveda included a link to an email sent this past week to members of the Advanced Placement program that announced the Wednesday release of the course framework.

"The official framework has been under development for nearly a year," the email states. "It will replace the preliminary pilot course framework under discussion to date and defines what students will encounter on the AP Exam for college credit and placement.

"We have worked and planned for this day for many months and will mark the milestone with a celebration at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on February 2," the email continued.

The document went on to explain the organization's process for the course that was concluded last month.

"To develop this official course framework, the AP Program consulted with more than 300 professors of African American Studies from more than 200 colleges nationwide, including dozens of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," the letter said.

To be clear, no states or districts have seen the official framework, the organization said. "This course has been shaped only by the input of experts and long-standing AP principles and practices."

The letter calls the framework historic and deserving of attention, and it invites people to read the material for themselves when it is released.

"When we share the course framework ... the public will see the extraordinary stories, artwork, documents, and debates at the heart of AP African American history and culture," the letter says.