This guest post was written by Jim Ross, an associate professor of history at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Ross trains secondary education teachers and previously spent eight years as a teacher in the Little Rock School District. He also served on the board of the Little Rock School District.
Around 3 pm on Friday afternoon, texts started coming in from teachers scheduled to offer the Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies class. Last year a few schools had been selected to pilot the class. It was a huge success and there was great demand for it. Little Rock Central High School offered one class in the pilot year, and this year they will be offering four classes.
Friday afternoon, on the last official work day before classes began, an official at Student Support Services at the Arkansas Department of Education called teachers around the state to tell them that AP African American studies class would not be an officially recognized Advanced Placement course this year.
There was a lot of confusion over this because the school administrators and district leadership had not been notified.
Sometime last night or this morning, districts that were offering the class received an email stating that the course had officially been deleted from the state curriculum because it had not been approved by the State Board of Education.
The Little Rock School District was told that they would be given a “generic local credit code” that would allow the class to be counted towards a student’s GPA, but not towards the state’s graduation requirements.
On top of this, it appears Arkansas will not be paying for the AP African American Studies exam since it is not an official class. Arkansas is one of the few states that pays for all AP exams for any student who takes an AP class. The exams cost $90 per student.
Advanced Placement courses are designed to mirror college-level curriculum and expectations. They challenge students to think critically, analyze complex topics, and manage a heavier workload. This better prepares students for the academic demands of higher education. Students who perform well on AP exams can earn college credit or advanced placement in college courses. This allows them to potentially graduate college earlier, save on tuition costs, or delve into more advanced coursework sooner. Colleges and universities often value AP courses on a student’s transcript. Taking AP courses can demonstrate a student’s commitment to academic excellence, willingness to take on challenges, and preparation for rigorous coursework. AP courses improve essential skills such as critical thinking, time management, research, and writing. AP courses cover a wide range of subjects, allowing students to explore their interests before committing to a college major. This exploration can help them make more informed decisions about their academic and career paths.
This last point in particular is what makes the AP African American Studies class so incredibly important. I had the opportunity to visit an AP African American Studies class last year at Little Rock Central High School and help students with the research component of the class. The first thing that I noticed when I walked in the room was that the students were majority African American, and they were excited to be there. The topics in the class interested them, and they had an enthusiasm that was contagious.
Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis decided to make this AP class a part of his renewed culture war in America. DeSantis raised red flags about the draft curriculum for the class and accused it of indoctrination. The College Board had not yet finalized the class and when they did, all that was opposed by conservatives had been made optional content.
Today, the finalized curriculum covers the African diaspora, freedom, enslavement, resistance, the practice of freedom, debates, and movements. It’s a history class that allows students to dive into primary and secondary sources to explore themes in the history of people of African descent. It covers in greater detail, issues that shaped the American experience and defined who we all are.
Back in January the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education asked the College Board about the content of the AP African American studies class that was being piloted in 60 schools nationwide, including two in Arkansas.
That same month Sarah Sanders issued an executive order saying that critical race theory was not to be taught in any Arkansas school. As Ruthie Walls, the teacher of the AP class at Little Rock Central High explained in February to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the course “does not violate…the executive order by any stretch of the imagination.”
After all the bluster over critical race theory and indoctrination, even Sarah Sanders admitted that her executive order was not meant to “prohibit the discussion of ideas and history of the concepts” like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. She also admitted that her executive order was not meant to “prohibit the discussion of public policy issues of the day and related issues that individuals might find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”
So, there’s no problem with teaching the AP African American Studies class. It does not violate any of the governor’s warnings against indoctrination.
We are left with many questions. The Arkansas Department of Education did not put this class before the State Board of Education for approval. Who made this decision? Why was it not placed before the board when the Department of Education knew it was being offered by more schools across the district?
We also have the odd way this decision was announced. Why were district personnel not alerted first? We also need to know why they waited until the last moment to alert the teachers. Central has almost 100 kids starting this class next week. This has the potential to throw students’ schedules into chaos if they don’t want to take the class.
In the end, students can still take the class if their district decides to continue offering it. The class will not count towards the 3 social studies credits a student needs. The end-of-year AP exam will also not be paid for by the state, although I know Little Rock will find a way for our students to have the test for free.
The state board of education could fix this next week by calling an emergency meeting and voting to approve the class. Will they do the right thing?
On Monday morning thousands of kids across our state will eagerly begin their class work in AP European history and AP African American history. Those kids in AP European history will be given credit and the state will pay for that exam. I know some don’t like it, but this is racism pure and simple.