History teacher Valanna White found herself in a quandary last fall when an administrator at her Tennessee high school pulled her syllabus for Advanced Placement U.S. Government. The course is designed to give students an analytical perspective on American government and its political system. But it was the unit on civil rights and civil liberties — and specifically her lessons on the 1960s Black Civil Rights Movement — that had raised alarms.
Tennessee is among the rash of states that have passed laws restricting how teachers discuss topics such as racial discrimination and institutional racism. When her supervisor later observed her class during the civil rights unit, White had to walk a tightrope — teaching from a true historical standpoint while navigating the state’s constraints on discussing America’s record of racial injustice.
The College Board, which oversees the AP program, adopted principles last year that oppose censorship as state lawmakers banned certain race-related material from classrooms. As the only Black teacher in her building, White questions the lack of advice and support from the organization in educators’ time of need.
“I teach in a very conservative county,” she said. When she advocates teaching a factual accounting of civil rights history, “it’s like I’m stirring the pot. It would be helpful to have another voice saying this is important.”
The missed opportunity reflects a history of concerns about inclusivity and racial bias that have dogged the College Board’s signature program, particularly Black students’ access to AP courses and the whitewashing of AP curriculum. Most recently, the organization has been embroiled in controversy over accusations that it succumbed to political pressure and watered down the first-ever AP class in African American studies.
That criticism of AP Black Studies is not unique. Experts say the College Board fails to rigorously engage with Blackness across its AP curriculum. The roster of classes generally sidestep interrogating our racialized society, said education professor Suneal Kolluri, who studies race in AP courses at the University of California, Riverside.
For instance, the AP Environmental Science course covers questions of environmental pollution but never deals with environmental racism, he said. And AP Economics looks at gross domestic product, supply and demand, and macroeconomics “without ever talking about wealth inequality, or in particular, the racial wealth gaps that exist by way of economic history in the United States, and the racialized capitalism that we live under,” Kolluri said.
By seeking to appease the racial sensitivities of some white Americans and conservative politicians, AP courses are failing to examine Black Americans’ experiences, which is a disservice to students.
“We have a lot of smart kids taking AP courses who really have no exposure or minimal exposure to questions of race and racism that’s so central to our democracy,” Kolluri said. “We’re talking about it, we’re voting on it, we’re protesting about it. If we’re creating future leaders who have never thought about racism as a present-day experience, only as historical artifact, then we’re not preparing kids to engage the world as it is. And that will have implications for Black people and Black futures.”
Launched in 1955, the AP program was originally designed to provide high school students, namely wealthy white students at the most elite high schools, an opportunity to take on the challenges of college-level work. The program eventually earned a revered status among affluent students and families, with AP courses boosting high school transcripts and signaling an admissions edge at selective colleges.
As this reputation solidified, more schools adopted the AP program to meet the growing demand. But the program’s origins as a white-centered space only reified racial gaps. Black students make up 15% of high-schoolers nationwide, but only 9% of students enrolled in at least one AP course — a figure that has remained stubbornly low for years.
“The entire reason for AP is to give some students a leg up over others,” said Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied privilege and inequity in the AP program. “If you take that away, AP has no reason for being anymore.”
While acknowledging that the College Board has made efforts to expand AP access to a wider diversity of students — including holding informational events for underrepresented groups — Schneider said the fundamental mission of the program narrows its ability to be a lever of equity for racially and economically marginalized youth. AP’s prestige — and the billion-dollar nonprofit’s business model — is tied to its exclusivity, he said.
“As soon as you say, ‘This is for everybody,’ that’s the beginning of the end for AP,” he said.
The College Board recognized that some high schoolers were historically excluded, Schneider said, and cherry-picked talented Black and other underrepresented students who were currently overlooked.
“It wasn’t ‘Every student is deserving of opportunities’; it was ‘Let’s let the best and brightest of those excluded people into the party.’ It sounds really messed up to say that we need to get the smartest kids out of classes with all of their peers, but it’s kind of the thinking,” he added, saying the quiet part out loud.
The College Board didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A February 2022 draft of the AP African American Studies course syllabus included a weeklong instructional focus on intersectionality and Black feminism. That focus included the pioneering work of law professor and theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has studied civil rights, race, and racism for over 30 years.
Then in January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration labeled Crenshaw’s ideas “indoctrination” — as well as course content on Black queer studies and the Black Lives Matter movement. It promised to block the AP class from Florida high schools unless changes were made. When the College Board unveiled the AP course’s final framework on Feb. 1, intersectionality was demoted to a single mention, and critical race theory as well as other content was deleted.
The College Board boasted about the scholarly expertise influencing the course that offered college credit in African American studies, an academic field that emerged from the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and Black students’ demands to desegregate college and university curricula. Except, it was not the first time that an AP course appeared to censor teaching on racism. In 2015, the College Board released a revised framework for AP U.S. History, removing references to “white superiority” and white Southerners’ “pride” in the institution of slavery.
“It’s gaslighting on an atomic scale,” Crenshaw said, stressing that the newly revised AP course fails to trace America’s past racism to contemporary inequalities that Black people continue to face — sending a chilling message to Black students.
“What explains high levels of police brutality, maternal mortality, wealth disparity, and early death? When you erase the frameworks that explain that — when you take away the intersections of Blackness and structures of subordination — you make it unnameable. When you say it is not legitimate knowledge, what is left for our young people to infer other than it must be us?”
In the aftermath, the College Board’s CEO, David Coleman, insisted that changes to the AP Black Studies course were completed “far before” it learned of Florida’s objections; the Florida Department of Education claimed it had repeated contact with the College Board about its complaints with the course; and the College Board challenged Florida’s recounting of events, expressing its commitment to Black Studies and important contributors to the field.
Setting aside the back-and-forth, Crenshaw questioned the decision to leave the stewardship of Black intellectual work to the machinations of the College Board.
“It’s not lost on any of us that Black knowledge is precious,” she said. “A little more than a century and a half ago, to think that you had a right to read, and that your thoughts mattered, would subject you to death. That’s how serious this endeavor is, and we need to curate and cherish it with that history in mind.”
The saga surrounding AP Black Studies is a stark reminder of the limitations of interest convergence, first coined by Harvard legal scholar Derrick Bell, which holds that Black gains in equality only occur when they converge with the material interests of white elites. That is why the national activist group Black Lives Matter at School, a coalition created by educators, is not content to tweak the status quo.
It opposes the outsourcing of education in publicly funded school systems to an unelected, unaccountable entity like the College Board. The coalition hosts a week of activism every February with cultural events, protests, and actions to demand racial justice within the education system. It also publishes a curriculum resource guide for teachers to access lessons on structural racism, intersectional Black identities, and anti-racist movements — with the aim of reclaiming a culturally sustaining, identity-affirming education for Black students.
“The AP program exists because we have normalized a tiered system of expectation and support for youth within U.S. public education,” said Christopher R. Rogers, the group’s curriculum co-chair, noting that Black families have traditionally been most burdened by this uneven investment.
Put more simply, Rogers denounced the larger structure of public schooling that is inherently unequal. Huge differences in funding, teacher quality, curriculum, and class sizes cause severe disparities between high- and low-poverty school districts, resulting in Black students being concentrated in schools that are under-resourced and highly segregated.
“These conditions precede and exceed the College Board,” he said, “yet the business they run is incredibly complicit.”