High school Advanced Placement struggles with race and diversity

By: - April 5, 2022 6:00 am
Student of color raising his hand showing only the hand holding a pencil in a classroom background

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Across Wisconsin and the nation thousands of high school students will be taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams this spring in hopes of doing well enough to earn college credit. That may not be possible in the coming years at some high schools if those schools remove required AP curriculum on race and diversity.  

The College Board is telling high schools it might decertify AP programs that purge content on racism, diversity and minority authors. At the same time, urban districts are voicing concern that AP is too focused on a white perspective of history, culture and literature. The College Board has responded with a pilot AP course in African American Studies. All this takes place as experts raise serious questions about the value of AP courses and college entrance exams.

The College Board is direct on its website. Under the heading What AP Stands For it states that “AP opposes censorship” and gives the example of previous attempts to remove evolution from AP biology by high schools. “The study of different nationalities, cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities is essential within a variety of academic disciplines… Parents do not define which college-level topics are suitable within AP courses; AP courses and exam materials are crafted by committees of professors and other expert educators in each field.”

For now, high schools that seek to restrict curriculum on systemic racism have to balance that against possible decertification. But the Wisconsin Legislature could have made the dilemma even worse by passing Assembly Bill 411.

If that  bill became law, parents could bring legal action against a school for teaching some theories on racism, something the College Board is adamantly against. Gov. Evers vetoed the bill.

The threat of the College Board revoking AP in some schools was of such concern that the Indiana legislature killed a similar bill early in March. Other states passing laws to censor curriculum are waking up to this same reality.

AP U.S. Government requires the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is difficult to read any other interpretation than that King sees systemic racism in this country. Jim Nelsen, who teaches AP US Government at Milwaukee’s Golda Meir High School, underscores this analysis.

Even if the College Board looked the other way and did not decertify a program because a high school removed that letter from its AP instruction, students would still face at least one question on the letter on the AP exam. Failure to answer questions on that letter and on civil rights from court rulings would surely doom many students from passing the AP U.S. Government exam.

While some high schools might drop that AP class, AP U.S. History is one of the most popular. A whole series of issues must be confronted in AP U.S. History: the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and more. If a high school glosses over or ignores some of these topics, students may have trouble on the AP exam.

The AP English reading list is more flexible, but a possible book on the list is the Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved by Toni Morrison — a target for parents who have sought to ban the book because they  contend it contains too much sex and violence. Defenders of the book say the real reason some want to ban Beloved is because it portrays the horrors of slavery in great detail.

While some conservative parents and school districts claim that AP courses unfairly portray white America in a negative light, some more racially diverse school districts argue that much of the AP curriculum is too white and presented almost entirely from a European perspective.

On May 27, 2021, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) sent a letter to the College Board raising concerns about AP curriculum and exams. The letter states that the concerns were coming from “one of our largest school districts” but other urban districts joined the chorus of concern.

The letter states, “In short, concerns were raised about how some of the curriculum is highlighting western (read: white) perspectives and sometimes the work of people of color is not being addressed or particular historical events are sometimes being downplayed or sanitized in some manner… the texts most cited on the English exam are predominantly white, men, aligned with the traditional canon of English literature, and not representative of the diversity in our community.”

Mark Schwingle at DPI responded to the Examiner’s request for an interview  by stating through the DPI media office that he would let the letter “speak for itself.” 

Christopher Bucher, DPI’s spokesperson, acknowledges  that the College Board “met with our staff last summer to gather more information and to identify next steps. There were initial meetings, but it is my understanding the frequency of those meetings is less as of late.”

College Board must walk a tightrope between conservative high schools with many college-bound students and prestigious universities that have a more liberal bent.  These high schools have to determine whether they are willing to lose some AP courses that their students desire for college credit. At the same time, universities might become less likely to accept AP test scores if the College Board whitewashes the AP curriculum.

AP African American Studies pilot in Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s Golda Meir High School is the only Wisconsin high school of the 68 schools in the nation to pilot the AP African American Studies program next year. Its social studies chair, Jim Nelsen, wrote the application for his high school and attended sessions as part of the selection process. Alex Janke will be the instructor for this pilot program.

The College Board looked for high schools that had a diverse population and showed success in other AP classes. Nelsen states that one-third of Meir graduates have passed at least one AP class.

A rough outline has been established and modification will continue along the way. Representatives from all high schools will have their say. 

“Don’t start with slavery because it is so demoralizing,” was an early advice from teachers, says Nelsen. Instead, the first segment will begin with the rich culture of Africa: the customs, arts, kingdoms. Only in the second segment will slavery be the focus. Segments three and four will deal with the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights and beyond. More than history will be studied: the arts, music, sciences, contributions of Black Americans. The approach is “multi-lens” says Janke.

Nelsen says an African American history AP course has been proposed in previous years. The problem is that a Black history course is rarely offered to college freshmen. AP classes are designed to replace first year college classes. But the College Board did discover that many colleges now offer an introductory cross-curriculum course. UWM offers an interdisciplinary Black studies freshman class.

Nelsen and Janke see some advantages. Courses like AP U.S. History are often seen as “gateway” AP classes as opposed to  much more difficult classes such as AP Calculus. Black students may see African American Studies as a gateway to success in AP; they may go on to take other AP classes.

The skills students will develop here can be used in other AP and future college classes. Students learn research skills, analysis and how to identify points of view. 

One drawback of the pilot program is that the exams to be given are data collection only; no AP college credits are projected to be given in the first two years. However, AP African American Studies will be placed on a student’s high school transcript and colleges may take that into consideration at the time of admissions.

The value of AP classes and entrance exams

The College Board is listed as a nonprofit organization but it is hardly a charity. Critics have questioned its value.  The establishment of the African American Studies program can be seen as a move to meet  the needs of minority students or as a business venture to tap an underserved market. It could be both. The College Board brings in most of its revenues from the SAT, PSAT and AP coursework and exams.

For the last two years, colleges and universities have not required entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT. The number of college entrance exams given has significantly dropped, and it appears that many colleges and universities will not require them in the near future. Wisconsin still requires the ACT as part of assessment of schools for the state report card; however, the ACT is not an exam of the College Board.

The College Board has turned to other sources of revenue over the years such as offering language arts and math curriculum under the title of Springboard.  It offers a battery of pre-SAT tests, some of which are used as assessment tools in several states.

AP courses are facing increasing competition for college bound students from other programs. Nelsen states that originally the College Board was going to include only 60 schools in the African American Studies pilot, but given the high interest, it expanded to 68 schools. Establishing the African American Studies program helps the College Board expand its market with a receptive consumer base.

An emerging competitor to the AP is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program which is offered in 25 Wisconsin schools. IB credits are recognized by most colleges and universities.Because IB is international, some of its U.S. schools offer AP U.S. History and/or U.S. Government not covered by IB.

High schools have always had a handful of students who exhausted their school’s curriculum in a specific area and were allowed to take a class or two at a local college or university. Recently that phenomenon has expanded into dual enrollment where a group of high school students becomes part of a program at the university, or a university instructor comes to the high school campus to teach.

Nelsen and Janke have seen how dual enrollment has cut into the number of students taking AP classes. If students pass a dual enrollment class, they automatically get both the high school and college credit, a real plus.

AP classes have been called a “scam and a “racket,” offering little value in comparison to a real college course.

Nelsen has a low opinion of such criticism. “What I hear is professional jealousy. Some college professors believe that we cannot do the job as well as they can… I have taught at multiple colleges. Those kids in Janke’s [U.S. History] have it far more difficult than many of the colleges I have taught at.”

Current controversies over curriculum and race are making the job of teaching college-level material to high school students even more of a challenge.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.

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