Word came Friday from distraught educators that a new Advanced Placement course on African American history was suddenly on the chopping block, just two days before the first bell of the school year was set to ring in Arkansas high schools planning to offer the class.
An official from the Arkansas Department of Education reportedly alerted high school teachers by phone on Friday that the class would not be recognized for course credit by the state in the 2023-24 school year. And unlike with every other AP class on offer, the state would not cover the $90 cost of an end-of-year test that gives students the opportunity to qualify for college course credit.
The College Board, which designs and administers AP exams, is currently piloting AP African American Studies at select U.S. high schools. Sixty schools around the country, including Central High in Little Rock and The Academies at Jonesboro High School, piloted the course last year. For the coming school year, the pilot program will expand to hundreds of schools, and students will test for college credit in the course for the first time in spring 2024.
Teachers at schools including Central High, North Little Rock High School, the North Little Rock Center for Excellence charter high school and Jacksonville High School prepared over the summer to offer the course in the upcoming school year. At least some of these teachers were at school prepping their classrooms and meeting with students and parents when they got the news from the state.
The full impact of the state’s move is still unclear. Teachers were reportedly told they could still offer the class, but the state will not recognize it on the same level as other AP courses. That may make African American Studies less attractive for students competing for top class rankings, who often seek out AP classes for the extra bump they provide to their GPAs (taking AP classes can shoot high-performing students above a 4.0). It could also have a chilling effect on other schools that might have been considering offering the course in the future.
The course will not count as a credit toward statewide graduation requirements, and students will have to pay their own test fees.
Oddly, no one at the Arkansas Department of Education answered phone calls or returned emails about the decision Friday afternoon, nor could they be reached Saturday. And because the phone calls about the last minute change went directly to teachers — bypassing district administrators and even principals — there was no paper trail to follow to figure out what was going on.
On Saturday morning, the state sent emails to district curriculum administrators letting them know the course would not be recognized. The terse email appeared not to be an official announcement but simply an alert to a change made in the education department’s course management system. The message indicates AP African American Studies was deleted from the state’s roster of offerings at 4:02 p.m. on the Friday before school starts for most public school students in Arkansas.
It appears the course had previously been included in the state’s list of offerings, but was deleted because the Arkansas Department of Education had not yet approved it.
It’s not clear why the course was listed in the state’s system if it had not yet been approved. Nor is it clear why the department waited until 48 hours before school starts, after teachers already solidified lesson plans and many students already picked up their class schedules, to remove it. Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell did not respond to questions about who made the decision and when.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Dumping on an African American studies course is red meat for Arkansas’s Republican base, already snapping over the phony threat of critical race theory and rampant transgenderism in public schools. Upon taking office, Gov. Sarah Sanders instructed her new education secretary, Jacob Oliva, to scour Arkansas curricula for signs of indoctrination and critical race theory.
Oliva himself is an import from Ron DeSantis’ Florida, which has led the charge against schools teaching history that doesn’t center on heteronormative white people stuff. During his tenure as a state-level education administrator in Florida, Oliva helped carry out the DeSantis administration’s attack on lessons that included multiculturalism or non-traditional sexual orientations or gender identities. In June, the state of Arkansas paid to send Oliva to Philadelphia to speak to the extremist conservative group Moms for Liberty, which is pushing to ban books that don’t comport with their views on race and gender from schools and public libraries.
Arkansas LEARNS, the massive school voucher and privatization bill championed by the governor, likewise paints a bullseye on multicultural education. It bans lessons that could “indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as ‘CRT,’ that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law.” Sanders and other LEARNS supporters vilified public school teachers during the 2023 legislative session, accusing them of indoctrinating students, but failing to offer examples. The LEARNS Act easily passed through Arkansas’s supermajority Republican legislature despite bipartisan concerns over the speed at which it was pushed through and the potentially devastating effects it will have on rural districts and communities.
A review of recent agendas and meeting minutes suggests any concerns or proposed policy changes regarding AP African American Studies have not been brought before the state Board of Education. The board’s last meeting was Thursday, the day before the department culled AP African American Studies from its course management system.
What is clear, though, is that the email sent from the education department at 8:01 a.m. on a Saturday amps up back-to-school anxiety for teachers and administrators who now must decide whether to still offer the course. Whether intentionally or not, the disruptive and destabilizing maneuver adds stress for students who planned on taking a regular AP class and now must weigh the potential cost to their GPAs (and to their wallets, since they’ll have to pony up the AP testing fee themselves).
In January, Little Rock Central High teacher Ruthie Walls talked to Tiger News Online student reporter Sophie Finkbeiner about the AP African American Studies pilot course, saying she was hopeful any controversy over it would die down. Walls said the class, already popular among students, did not violate Sanders’ executive orders taking aim at critical race theory and indoctrination. Walls also said she was disheartened the governor singled the course out for scrutiny.
We’ve heard Oliva paid a visit to Little Rock Central High this spring and looked in on Walls’ class.
Public education watchdog Jim Ross (a frequent contributor to the Arkansas Times blog) and former state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), a former teacher, were among those raising questions about this apparent last-minute decision from the state on social media.
Ross noted AP European History continues to be offered for full credit, and called the Department of Education’s decision to not recognize a course about African American history “racism pure and simple.” He also took issue with the vague and confusing last-minute notifications.
Schools that offer the class are being told there is a local credit code that will allow students to take the class but for no Smart Core credit nor will the state pay for the AP exam. District officials have not been told this. pic.twitter.com/Kz1FbkuuSm
— Jim Ross (@rossjam) August 12, 2023
Elliott said she hoped the Arkansas Department of Education would move quickly to officially approve the class for full credit. She pointed to a social media banner from the education department that says, “Every Arkansan is equitably prepared, supported, and inspired to succeed in school, career, community, and life.”
“How is it possible to carry out such a promise and not even offer this course?” Elliott asked. “They have decided to delete it just days before school begins and deny every student in this state — not just African-American students — the opportunity to take the AP African-American history course. This has to change for this school year.”
While this is a developing story with many holes yet to fill, we can look to Florida for clues on what might happen next. Florida’s governor was the first to nix AP African American Studies. DeSantis went on to nix AP Psychology too, because the course explores issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.