The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) has faced criticism and accusations of racism after announcing that students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies will not receive course credit toward graduation. The decision affects six schools in the state that chose to participate in the pilot program offered by the College Board, the organization that administers the AP exams.
What is AP African American Studies?
AP African American Studies is a new college-level course for high school students that explores the history, culture, and politics of African Americans from slavery to the present. The course aims to provide students with a critical understanding of the diverse and complex experiences of African Americans in the United States and their contributions to the nation’s development. The course also covers topics such as Black Lives Matter, Black queer studies, and reparations.
The College Board launched the AP African American Studies pilot course to 60 schools across the country last year, including Little Rock Central High School and Academies at Jonesboro High School in Arkansas. According to the College Board, more than 200 colleges and universities nationally have already signed on to provide college credit for students who pass the AP exam for the course.
Why did ADE reject the course?
On Friday, August 11, 2023, ADE announced that it will not approve the AP African American Studies course as an official AP course for the 2023-2024 school year. ADE spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said that the course was still undergoing revisions and could potentially put teachers at risk of violating Arkansas law. She cited the Arkansas LEARNS Act and an executive order by Governor Sarah Sanders that prohibit “indoctrination and critical race theory” in schools.
The LEARNS Act, which was signed by Sanders in March 2023, restricts classroom lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation. The executive order, which was issued by Sanders in January 2023, bans “any curriculum or instruction that teaches or promotes any theory that states or implies that any race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex; that any individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of their race or sex; or that any individual’s moral character is determined by their race or sex.”
Mundell said that ADE encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination. She added that there is currently an African American History class that students can receive credit for.
How did people react to ADE’s decision?
ADE’s decision has sparked outrage and condemnation from various groups and individuals who see it as a racist and political move to erase and suppress the history and voices of African Americans. Some of the reactions are:
- Allison Grigsby Sweatman, the president of the Young Democrats of Arkansas, called the refusal to recognize AP African American Studies as an approved AP course “racist” and said that “black history is Arkansas history”. She also blamed Sanders’ new Department of Education for the decision and vowed to fight for all Arkansas students to receive the education they deserve.
- Jermall Wright, a teacher at Little Rock Central High School who taught the AP African American Studies course last year, said that he was disappointed and frustrated by ADE’s decision. He said that his students benefited from learning about their own heritage and culture, as well as developing critical thinking and writing skills. He also said that he followed the College Board’s guidelines and did not teach anything controversial or divisive.
- Holly Stepp, the executive director of communications for the College Board, said that ADE’s decision was based on misinformation and slander. She said that the AP African American Studies course was designed by a diverse group of educators and experts who followed rigorous academic standards and best practices. She also said that the course does not promote any ideology or agenda, but rather encourages students to examine multiple perspectives and sources of evidence.
- Several students who took or planned to take the AP African American Studies course expressed their anger and sadness over ADE’s decision. They said that they felt cheated out of an opportunity to learn more about themselves and their ancestors, as well as to earn college credit. They also said that they felt disrespected and discriminated against by ADE and Sanders.
What are the next steps?
According to Mundell, ADE will continue to review the AP African American Studies course and provide feedback to the College Board. She said that ADE will make a final decision on whether to approve the course for credit after receiving more information from the College Board.
Meanwhile, some of the schools that offered or planned to offer the AP African American Studies course said that they will still teach it as an elective or a regular history course, even if it does not count for credit. They said that they believe in the value and importance of the course for their students and communities.
The College Board said that it will continue to work with ADE and other stakeholders to ensure that students in Arkansas have access to high-quality AP courses that prepare them for college and career success. It also said that it will support the teachers and schools that are participating in the AP African American Studies pilot program and provide them with the necessary resources and guidance.