Florida governor DeSantis escalates battle with College Board

State education department head suggests SAT could be replaced by Christian-oriented alternative

February 21, 2023
Tallahassee, FL, USA - Feb 15, 2019 The huge outside preserve grounds of the Old Capital of Florida
Source: iStock

Florida governor Ron DeSantis is expanding his fight over the teaching of African American studies into a confrontation with the entire College Board, threatening a major new showdown for the maker of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and SAT tests just as his state has begun offering it a rare embrace.

After the College Board condemned Mr DeSantis’ criticisms of its new AP course teaching black history, the firebrand governor shot back, suggesting Florida might halt all AP courses. “It is not clear to me that this particular operator is the one that is going to be used in the future,” the governor said of the 123-year-old test-production company.

The governor’s mindset was reinforced afterwards by Henry Mack, the senior chancellor in charge of postsecondary affairs at the state Department of Education, who suggested that the SAT could be replaced in Florida by a Christian-oriented alternative known as the Classic Learning Test.

“Not only do we need to build anew by returning to the foundations of our democracy, but CLT also offers the opportunity for all our colleges and universities to right-size their priorities,” Dr Mack, a visiting lecturer in religious studies at the University of Miamisaid on Twitter.

The emerging battle stands as another flashpoint in the campaign by Mr DeSantis, a leader in 2024 US presidential polling, to build his political brand on the framework of embedding conservative ideology into public education.

In general, standardised tests have fallen into disfavour across much of the US, largely because they bear significant race- and wealth-based inequities. Florida, however, has become a national leader in its share of students taking both the AP exam, which ratifies college-level credit for courses taken in high school, and the SAT, which is the leading standardised college admissions test.

Florida does tend to score poorly on those testing systems, although that can be a marker of higher participation rates. Either way, until the College Board began developing the new African American studies AP course a year ago, Mr DeSantis was an enthusiastic cheerleader of the AP as an objective affirmer of progress. He was the AP US history course’s “student of the year” at his Florida high school in 1997, and as governor in 2021 he touted the state’s improving AP test scores as proof “that our investments in education are paying off”.

But Mr DeSantis and other conservatives have grown increasingly insistent that educators downplay the central role of race in shaping US society, fuelling their fight over the AP’s new African American studies course. That in turn has the governor facing rising public discontent over his talk of blocking what has become a reliable tool for college qualification, especially among his middle-class political base.

Mr DeSantis suggested the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Assessment programmes, along with dual enrolment arrangements between individual high schools and colleges, as alternatives to the AP for earning early college-level credits. But the IB and Cambridge options are small in the US and limited in flexibility, requiring a full commitment of curriculum by students and their high school, rather than the AP’s single-course format.

And the bigger of the two in the US, the IB, has globally oriented perspectives that aren’t likely to be much friendlier toward Mr DeSantis’ worldview, said Alex Perry, a national expert in college-level options for high schoolers.

“I think he has not looked at the IB curriculum in too much detail,” said Mr Perry, a UK native and Washington-based policy adviser at the education law firm Foresight Law + Policy. “It certainly didn’t feel less ‘woke’ to me when I was taking it” in England in 2005, he said.

It’s possible that Mr DeSantis will seek to grow direct dual enrolment links between Florida’s public colleges and universities and its high schools, Mr Perry said. But while dual enrolment partnerships are growing across the US, they’re a far more complicated and expensive model, he said. That’s because the College Board has a relatively simple teacher certification process for teaching AP courses, while dual enrolment arrangements often require extensive additional schooling for teachers and detailed cross-institution negotiations for student credits to be accepted beyond the participating college or university.

It’s also not clear what methods Mr DeSantis and his Republican allies controlling the state legislature might use to forbid high schools or public colleges and universities from working with the College Board. They could remove existing student subsidies for the cost of taking AP and SAT tests, or go as far as withdrawing state support for high schools or postsecondary institutions that don’t comply with an anti-College Board agenda, Mr Perry said.

“It certainly is a really extreme reaction to be negatively inclined to one AP course and then escalate it to the level of potentially banning it from the state entirely,” he said. “It’s one of those things where it’s one thing to say it, and it’s another thing to actually do it.”


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