The College Board’s decision to revise its African American studies curriculum has come under fire from many who say the changes are motivated by political pressure rather than pedagogical considerations. The new curriculum, which is stripped of most subjects opposed by the DeSantis administration, has been criticized for erasing the experiences of black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, reparations, the queer experience, and black feminism.
Education is at the center of many poisonous partisan debates in America. But David Coleman, head of The College Board, insists the changes were not due to political pressure. He said the revisions were made after input from professors and in accordance with “long-standing AP principles.” ETS was supported by the College Board. Whether or not one believes that changes to the African American studies curriculum are warranted, it is clear that they will have far-reaching implications for the way race is taught in America.
Although the College Board has greatly expanded its AP courses over the past two decades, it is not effectively addressing long-term issues of racial equity. Despite the wide availability of AP courses, lower-income communities are still less likely to offer them than those in more affluent areas, and black students are consistently underrepresented, even when affordability is not a problem. The gap in test scores between different racial groups has widened since 2003, highlighting a lack of resources and support for some student populations.
Studies have revealed a variety of systemic factors that continue to impede equitable access to AP classes. This includes low expectations from faculty or advisors about a student’s ability to succeed in advanced classes, financial constraints on offering such classes, insufficient support for faculty development, and exclusionary policies such as prerequisites or grade limits. Additionally, students from certain backgrounds may also not be able to take advantage of opportunities due to lack of information networks or financial resources required for AP exams.
The SAT and ACT, standardized tests used to measure learning ability in college admissions, have a racist history rooted in the influx of immigrants to the United States in the 1800s.
Carl Brigham was a psychologist and eugenicist who believed that African Americans were at the lowest end of the racial and cultural spectrum. He argued that the education system would decline at an “accelerating rate” as it became racially mixed.
The SAT debuted in 1926, while Lewis Terman developed IQ tests based on Alfred Binet’s work during World War I, when intelligence tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers segregated by race and test scores. These spurred the rapid expansion of the school testing movement across the United States.
In the 1930s, multiple-choice tests became entrenched in schools, sparking debate that their content was racist or biased toward memorization and guessing. Harvard adopted testing in 1934 to select scholarship recipients, followed by many other institutions. This has led to today’s widespread acceptance despite criticism from researchers and media reports of bias due to its roots in pseudoscience, such as eugenics, promoted by bigots like Brigham.
Despite the College Board’s efforts to pivot and present it instead as a means of finding disadvantaged students, modern science has shown that functional and diverse intelligences scale. The battle between diversity and the SAT continues today; while research universities remain largely unchanged after 50 years, and professors have focused more on course requirements than teaching methods or testing analytical skills, debate rages over whether colleges should drop their SAT/ACT score requirements.
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, has been accused of racism since its inception. In 1901, the board was created to standardize college admissions across the United States. However, from the very beginning the Board was dominated by rich white men who used it to benefit themselves and their families.
For example, the board soon decided that only students who could afford to pay for the SAT would be allowed to take it. This effectively prevented poor and working-class students from attending college. In addition, the Board has been slow to change the test to reflect the changing demographics of the United States. For example, until recently the test contained questions that favored white students, such as questions about country clubs or yacht races.
The College Board has also been accused of using the SAT as a way to maintain class divisions in society. Critics argue that the SAT is really just a tool for rich kids to get into college, and that it does nothing to level the playing field for poor and working-class students. In fact, studies have shown that there is little correlation between SAT scores and success in college or life.
Despite ongoing debate and evidence to the contrary, the College Board’s SAT remains a major factor in college admissions decisions. Colleges are reluctant to deviate from what they have traditionally done, while some argue that test scores serve as valid measures of academic ability. Regardless, it is clear that any attempt to promote diversity in higher education must confront this long history and related debates.
Implications for African Americans
The College Board’s failure to properly respond to Governor DeSantis’ objections to the AP African American Studies course reveals an apathy toward black activism. Their response was not only an insult to those who fight against CRT politicians, but also perpetuates the systemic racism that permeates American education.
It is particularly egregious that an entity like the College Board would capitulate to political pressure while denying that it did so. The college board remained silent while black activists advocated for the curriculum, then undermined and silenced their activism by issuing a watered-down final curriculum early. In doing so, they contribute to reinforcing racist and repressive power dynamics that contribute to inequality in access to higher education.
The indifference to systemic racism shown by the College Board serves as a reminder of why we can’t trust them in African American studies. Beyond content, the process, procedures, and placement of the course within the current system will do little to eliminate oppression. Until the College Board takes responsibility for their role in perpetuating discrimination and inequality, they will continue to be complicit in creating an unfair educational system for African Americans.
The fight for equality in the education system
The educational system in the United States has been and still is subject to gross levels of racial discrimination and oppression. Fair assessment is essential to achieving true equality in education. Unfortunately, the College Board, recognizing its long reign as the undisputed leader of standardized testing in this country, has failed to develop assessments free of racial bias and aimed at providing equitable opportunities for all students.
For more than a century, the College Board has successfully manipulated public perception to perpetuate false notions of intelligence and success. Through political maneuvering and the introduction of frameworks based on antiquated eugenic theories, they convinced society that test success determined eligibility for academic opportunities; thus creating an environment where students born into privilege are seen as smarter. The validity of their flawed products is not supported by science – only power-hungry elites benefit from these preconceived ideals.
Not achieving the desired score on standardized tests can be a huge source of stress, amid internalization and external expectations. This false claim that low test scores indicate a lack of potential remains pervasive despite countless successful examples that challenge such beliefs. As someone who has personally faced this stigma, I urge those who are completely comfortable with these contrived arrangements to reconsider their position. It is not only our abilities, but also our resources – or rather limitations – that prevent us from reaching greater heights.
The College Board’s commitment to equality has been woefully inadequate, and its decisions demonstrate a deafness to the plight of the black community. The “Adversity Score” of 2019 and the anti-woke AP African American Studies class of 2023 are examples of this callous indifference to racial issues. Just as CEO Coleman tried to convince us that the AP curriculum is not influenced by politics, the AP African American Studies course will try to convince us that black children’s activists with Baldwin and hooks in tow know less about African American studies than an honor student who can memorize and present disjointed and incoherent facts about black history.
African Americans deserve better.
Dr. Ivory A. Toldson is the National Director of Education Innovation and Research for the NAACP. He is also a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education.