A former College Board worker explains how the company’s “apolitical” pedagogical approaches privilege right wing ideas, even as the right wing accuses them of spreading “wokeism.”
Last Wednesday, the College Board announced new changes to its AP African American Studies curriculum, soon after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned AP African American Studies from Florida schools as part of his crackdown on any curriculum acknowledging systemic racism or discussing queer issues in a positive light. Sure enough, the new curricular changes remove several of the more left-wing authors and ideas, relegate contemporary topics like Black Lives Matter, reparations, Black feminism, and the Black queer experience to “optional” or “suggested” status, and add “Black conservatism” as a suggested topic for projects.
The president of the College Board, David Coleman, told The New York Times that these changes were all pedagogical, not political. But as a former College Board employee myself, I have a pretty good guess what these “pedagogical” reasons are.
I worked in the SAT division, not on the AP exams. When developing SAT content for the reading and writing sections, having a diverse array of topics was important — diverse in terms of gender, race, and geography. But there were also rules about what *couldn’t *****be written about, or had to be addressed very carefully. The rationale behind this list of forbidden topics was that some topics can be emotionally activating for some students but not others, which creates an inequitable testing environment. I agree with this logic in principle. But in practice, what was considered inappropriate was absolutely political. And this is what I suspect is the “pedagogical” reason behind the revisions to the AP African American Studies curriculum.
The College Board likes to present itself as an institution full of nice liberals who are passionate about education and evening the playing field for students of diverse backgrounds. In the workplace, they have “affinity groups” for Black workers, Latinx workers, and LGBTQ+ workers. They like to point out that David Coleman is gay — they couldn’t possibly be a conservative or homophobic institution if they have a gay president, right? Wrong.
Whenever a topic is controversial, it can stir up emotions. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning about. It’s true that a passage about a queer person could affect the respective testing experiences of a queer student and a homophobic student. But avoiding this kind of situation means catering to the homophobic student’s bigotry. It means that workers like me are told that we can’t write about queer topics and that if we want to write about a queer person, we have to leave their gender or sexuality out of it. The existence of people of many different racial backgrounds is (correctly) taken as a given, but merely acknowledging the existence of queer people is seen as too controversial to be appropriate for a test. I was homophobically censored as a College Board employee.
The day I learned about the restrictions, I looked up other instances of the College Board caving to political pressure. In 2014, the AP U.S. History curriculum was revised to be nicer to Ronald Reagan, among other changes, in response to conservative criticism. Why? Because the College Board is not in the business of educating students about the world. It is in the business of making money. As the vice president of the company proudly announced to a room full of employees during my time there, “We’re a non-profit, but we make a profit.”
According to New York Times research, almost half of the company’s $1 billion in revenue came from “AP and Instruction” in 2019. If the entire state of Florida — the third most populous state in the country — isn’t purchasing AP materials for a certain course, the College Board is losing out on an important revenue stream. Furthermore, the AP African American Studies curriculum is new — it’s an area for expansion, for revenue growth, and many years of time and money have been invested in its development. The College Board needs to recoup those costs.
College Board claims that its curricular revisions were made prior to Governor DeSantis’s ban. This may very well be true. But “anti-CRT” and “anti-woke” sentiments have been circulating for years. Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” was introduced into the state legislature in January 2022, and pilot programs for the previous curriculum have already been running in schools while the College Board collects feedback. It’s impossible to ignore the political climate around this topic when revising the curriculum. Any decision — to keep something in the curriculum, to change something, to add something, or remove something — is always also a political one. And The College Board made decisions that at the end of the day favor the Right and will help them make more money.
There are many problems with The College Board beyond this particular issue. These include the entire history of the SAT as an inherently classist and racist gatekeeping tool, the way getting a good score on the exam overshadows other learning goals in AP classes, the way that AP’s selling point of “get college credit for cheap!” only works in a world where public colleges aren’t free, and the way some students work themselves to the bone taking full course loads of only AP classes, to the detriment of their health and other activities.
There are also many problems facing U.S. educators beyond AP African American Studies, including “Don’t Say Gay” bills, last week’s political coup of The New College of Florida, and attacks on the rights of trans children and the rights of their teachers to protect them. All of these issues require workers to organize together to fight back, to tell governments and companies like the College Board that this is unacceptable. That Black radicalism is a key part of African American Studies, that queer people exist, and that course content should be accurate, not right-washed to make conservatives comfortable.
I would like to see an educators’ movement that includes a boycott of College Board products alongside a demand for free college for all, removing AP’s stranglehold on the finances of high schoolers and their families. An educators’ movement that includes removing the SAT, ACT, and other entrance exams as requirements for college. An educators’ movement that includes protecting queer students and providing them with a safe place to learn and grow. An educators’ movement that fights for the importance of teaching and learning about Black history and the history of all other oppressed peoples, including the role of the United States government in this oppression. Teachers’ unions in all states must take up these demands, and even in schools without unions, the time for organizing is now.