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Should AP Add African-American History?

August 7, 2007

The Advanced Placement program offers curriculums and testing in 37 areas -- chemistry and calculus, art history and Latin literature, Chinese language and culture and European history, to name just a few. But there is no AP in African-American history.

Some school district officials have recently suggested that such an AP program be created -- but the College Board is skeptical. College Board officials say their doubts have nothing to do with the significance of African-American history, but with the reactions they have received from college educators they have consulted. For a variety of reasons, the College Board says, college officials prefer to be teaching African-American history themselves, as opposed to having students enter college with AP credit in the field. If colleges wanted to have an AP offering in African-American history, the board would be open to the idea, its officials say.

The difference of opinion points to a number of questions that surround the AP program: Is its purpose to help students place out of introductory courses or to encourage them to study with greater rigor in high school (or both)? Why do some AP programs attract more members of certain ethnic or racial groups than others? Why are black students significantly less likely than the population as a whole to take AP courses? With many competitive colleges expecting applicants to have AP courses on their transcripts, should the College Board be trying new strategies to get more black students involved in the program?

The idea of adding African-American history is the brainchild of Linda Lane, deputy superintendent for instruction of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"One of our district goals is to dramatically increase enrollment of African-American enrollment in AP classes, and having worked on this issue before, I know that a lot of African-American students have the ability to tackle AP but are reluctant, so I was trying to think about how we could bridge them into the program," she said.

Lane stressed that she doesn't want black students to study only their own history. "It's not that African-American students don't need to take Chinese and calculus and physics. But having an African-American course among those offerings sends a powerful message" that their history matters, she said. "It connects students with a tradition of scholarship that they don't always see."

In the Pittsburgh schools, 17 percent of those taking AP courses are black -- a percentage that sounds high only until you know that the district's enrollment is 57 percent black.

Nationally, 6.9 percent of those who took AP exams last year were black, compared to a student population that is 13.7 percent black. Latino students make up 14 percent of test takers and of the student population. Asian students are overrepresented in the AP population, making up 10.9 percent, compared to 5.5 percent of the total student population. The racial and ethnic gaps are attributed to many factors and while the College Board has expanded efforts to help low-income areas offer AP programs, high schools are far from equal, with some high schools offering a full range of options and some hardly any. Some educators have questioned the fairness of colleges granting preference or extra points to applicants with many AP courses when those offerings aren't available equally.

College Board data suggest that in some cases, there may be a relationship between students' race and ethnicity and their pursuit of certain AP subjects. Latino students make up a majority, for example, in Spanish language and literature programs.

Here are some of the breakdowns of those taking AP exams, by race and ethnicity. The numbers do not add to 100 percent because they exclude "other" and those who do not identify their race or ethnicity.

Race and Ethnicity of AP Exam Test Takers, 2006

Subject White Asian Latino Black
Calculus BC (advanced) 58.6% 26.8% 4.6% 2.1%
English language and composition 61.7% 10.7% 11.8% 6.9%
European history 67.9% 12.4% 7.5% 3.5%
Government and politics of the U.S. 62.4% 12.2% 10.7% 5.6%
Macroeconomics 55.4% 18.8% 11.4% 4.5%
Physics -- electricity and magnetism 57.3% 27.5% 3.9% 1.7%
Spanish literature 13.1% 3.7% 75.1% 0.7%
U.S. history 64.2% 11.5% 9.8% 6.0%

Trevor Packer, who runs the AP program at the College Board, stressed in an interview Monday that the organization is bothered by the racial disparities in the program and wants to see them disappear. He also noted that the rate of increase for Latino students is highest in physics, not Spanish literature, so progress can be made that does not reflect a direct cultural or historic connection to a language or area of history.

Packer stressed that the College Board would "absolutely support the notion of an AP course in African-American history," but that colleges don't want it. Packer said that new AP offerings tend to come from colleges, which ask the College Board to develop tests that will allow students to place out of introductory courses. He said that the College Board has never received such a request for African-American history. Given his interest in the field, Packer said he has gone to college professors and asked if they would be interested in such a course.

The College Board has been told that African-American history is typically taught by a tenure-track professor (unlike many a freshman composition class or biology lab section) and that it is frequently the only African-American history course a college student takes, he added. "So they don't want an exemption test for freshmen to skip those courses. They don't want freshmen skipping those courses," Packer said.

Asked about the argument that many high school students take AP courses for enrichment and knowledge as opposed to college credit, Packer said that College Board research suggests that students would not enroll "once you remove the credit and placement" advantage of tests for which students can earn college credit. He also said that College Board studies suggest that "there's not a greater likelihood of college-level African American studies being offered in urban schools than in suburban schools."

While Packer said that the analysis has discouraged the College Board from creating an AP course in African-American history, he stressed that many AP programs, including American history, include significant study of black history and culture. In some cases, he said that the AP program is more inclusive than many college courses. For example, he said the AP program in art history requires knowledge of non-Western art, while many introductory college courses focus on Europe.

If colleges change their views, he said, the College Board remains open on the question, but he hasn't seen any indication of such a change. "We're eager to hear more from higher education," he said.

Several experts on black history said that they realized there would be challenges to creating such courses, but said that they supported the idea.

V.P. Franklin, a historian at Dillard University who is editor of The Journal of African-American History, said his top priority for high schools is that they teach more African-American history of any kind -- regardless of the AP program. "There are too few schools teaching it," he said.

Franklin said that while the College Board may be correct that students today typically take only one African-American history course, who is to say that an AP program might not inspire a different attitude? While most students may take only one course, there are many courses offered and that could be added. "This might make students more excited about a range of courses," he said.

Daryl Scott, chair of history at Howard University and vice president of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, has advised the College Board on possible changes in its American history program, and he praised the organization for taking black history seriously in that curriculum. But he rejected the idea that having such a program eliminates the need for black history as its own program -- "at least no more than the existence of a world history course negates the need for a U.S. history course."

Scott also said that he worried about the disadvantage facing black students who don't take AP courses. A move that might attract more of them to AP deserves support, he said. "We need to make black students more competitive for college," he said, and an AP in African-American history would do that, while providing "another rigorous course" in high school. The benefit to the student can be real even without college credit, he said.

Lane, of Pittsburgh, said she was "disappointed" in the College Board's response. She questioned whether colleges are really opposed to the idea, and noted that after The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about her idea, she received e-mail messages from local university officials encouraging her to continue to push the College Board, which she said she will do.

Even if there are arguments against adding a new test, Lane said that the educational challenges facing black students in inner cities are so serious that it's time to try different approaches. "I thought the College Board would be concerned enough that they would at least be open to trying some things we haven't done before," she said.

 

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