Amid all the anxiety about what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing to the state’s education system, one thing has provided hope to commentators who want to see space maintained for the honest, necessary conversations about difficult social topics that are central to democratic schooling. That’s the persistent popularity of, and state support for, Advanced Placement coursework in Florida. In DeSantis’ 2021 “State of the State” address, he proclaimed, “Florida continues to make great strides in K–12 education.” His first piece of evidence: “Just last week, the College Board released data showing that Florida ranks No. 2 in the nation in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed Advanced Placement exams.” That year, 56 percent of the state’s public high school graduates had taken at least one AP exam—the nation’s highest participation rate. Surely, one might think, if AP courses are thriving in Florida, the news can’t all be bad.
But this hope is misplaced. Advanced Placement has been in existence since the mid-1950s, but over the past decade, the program’s substance and guiding philosophy have transmogrified, even as its name has stayed the same. In an interview, Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pointed out that in the current landscape, brands can help companies “market educational products that touch on anxieties.” The AP brand feels familiar to some from their own high school experiences, and the company that sells it, the College Board, benefits from that sense of stability. But “AP” means something different now than it did decades ago. DeSantis’ affection proves it.
Florida’s deluge of education reform proposals is overwhelming. Most seek to destabilize existing structures and norms. Perhaps the most famous is H.B. 7, the “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricts teaching about race, gender, and sexual orientation in both secondary and higher education. Earlier this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free-speech nonprofit, announced that it had filed a suit challenging the higher-ed provisions in the Stop WOKE Act, to preserve access to what the nonprofit described as a form of college education more robust than “memorizing facts and repeating government-approved viewpoints.” Appeals like these, to maintain the integrity of higher education by protecting professors’ speech in court, reveal a key difference between high schools and colleges: For years, circuit courts have agreed that public school teachers cede free speech in the classroom. Florida now seeks to classify professors’ instruction as controlled “government speech” by the same logic.
Another of DeSantis’ efforts at restructuring education is relatively underreported: In response to ballooning college tuition costs and a heightened demand for workers, the governor is promoting early college. For decades, Florida’s tax-funded high schools have been required to offer students opportunities to earn college credits. Streamlining K–12 and higher education by making the latter more like the former threatens to deprive public school students of contact with educators with the freedom to do as they like.
In its current form, AP complies with, and even benefits from, DeSantis’ vision of education. In 2021, the latest year for which data is available, the College Board sold the state’s students 366,150 exams for roughly $96 each, resulting in revenue of more than $35 million. This year, exams will cost students $97. As we’ve learned while looking at Texas’ effect on the textbook market, state patronage of private companies that provide educational materials can affect what’s included in those materials. For the company, states are far more important customers than are individual students: It’s in the College Board’s interest to appease DeSantis.
Some of the AP program’s most enthusiastic champions nationwide are right-wing education reformers. Last winter, as news of state-level censorship legislation flooded social media, some were surprised to learn that Todd Huston, who was then the College Board’s vice president of regions and account services, as well as the Republican speaker of Indiana’s state House of Representatives, led efforts to restrict Indiana’s curriculum. This seemed incongruous: Why would someone who works for the College Board want to be part of such an effort? But the College Board has a financial incentive to promote legislation that creates confusion about acceptable parameters for instruction and breeds mistrust of teachers. Overworked or inexperienced AP teachers eager to take the path of least resistance, and avoid conflict with parents and school boards, can use AP Classroom, the company’s new digital platform, to instruct with daily videos and administer cookie-cutter assessments. Even teachers who might otherwise diverge have an incentive to drill to the AP exams: In Florida, as elsewhere, teachers have long received a bonus of $50 for every student they teach who takes an AP exam and scores 3 or higher.
As attacks on openness and diversity in K–12 education reached a fever pitch last spring, the College Board posted a statement titled “What AP Stands For.” The foremost commitment in this statement, which many applauded, was to “clarity and transparency.” But what does it actually mean when the College Board says, “If a school bans required topics from their AP courses, the AP program removes the AP designation from that course”? In AP English courses, the program stipulates no specific texts, so a school board could easily ban any book without violating the code. Meanwhile, in the case of AP U.S. Government, compliance with the company’s “required topics”—as of 2018, a mandated, standardized list of documents and Supreme Court cases—actually represents a dangerous narrowing of civics instruction for some of the nation’s most ambitious students.
Over the past decade, as private universities like Harvard have started to refuse credit for AP exams, most state higher education systems have adopted uniform policies regarding their acceptance of AP credits. All public Florida colleges and universities must recognize the College Board’s exams for credit, regardless of professors’ thoughts about the program’s academic merit. What the growing prominence of AP, in Florida and across the country, will do to higher education is a matter of growing concern. On Twitter, following the company’s announcement of an AP African American Studies course this summer, historian and New Yorker writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asked, “Will these AP credits be used to undermine collegiate African American Studies programs and departments?” The AP African American Studies course announcement and the provision in Florida’s H.B. 7 for mandatory African American history instruction were very closely timed. As the history profession dies and undergraduate humanities majors decline, it would be a shame if a testing company cut into the remaining budget for scholars to research and teach in this field.
After DeSantis announced a revision of his state’s academic civics standards, former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran cheered what he called “Florida’s continued commitment to lead and foster the values we hope to see in our society.” By high school graduation, Florida students are responsible for understanding (as the standards put it) “how liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States,” and “how U.S. foreign policy supports democratic principles and protects human rights around the world.” Florida’s public high school students are required to sit for a multiple-choice civics exam that enforces this vision for citizenship. By college, students must demonstrate civic literacy by passing both the exam and a civics course. AP U.S. Government and AP U.S. History count toward this requirement.
The AP program’s place in DeSantis’ agenda raises serious questions about these courses’ ability to teach alternative lessons about the United States, about citizenship, and about life—not just to Florida students, but to everyone. In 2018, in Christianity Today, College Board CEO David Coleman published an op-ed about the value of (Christian) religious education. He wrote, “A young person informed by grace and gratitude escapes the illusion that they are entirely in control of their lives.” What about the Quaker tradition of speaking truth to power? The company’s exam-aligned writing assignments seem like they might invite reflection on human capacities beyond heroism and villainy, but in truth they restrict and mechanize expression. Last year, over 60 percent of AP World History test takers earned a score guaranteeing college credit, while 86 percent of these same students failed to provide adequate “analysis and reasoning,” according to the company’s own data. Many of the nation’s wealthiest private high schools have dropped their AP programs in the name of quality and autonomy. Can an experience of public school and college centered on standardized exams offer a sense of intellectual agency and vitality that leads to freedom and empowerment?
Instead of creating conditions for genuine pluralism and civic engagement in public schools, the $1.3 billion College Board is presenting itself as an ally to students and teachers while diverting attention from a dangerous set of laws. Public education for democracy requires better. It’s past time to stop buying into the AP brand.