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4 things to know about Ron DeSantis’ idea to slash AP courses in Florida

It started with a feud over one course. Now, tens of thousands of students could be affected.
 
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Hialeah Gardens in April after signing HB 7, known as the "Stop WOKE Act." DeSantis has suggested that perhaps the state might be better off without Advanced Placement classes.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Hialeah Gardens in April after signing HB 7, known as the "Stop WOKE Act." DeSantis has suggested that perhaps the state might be better off without Advanced Placement classes. [ DANIEL A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]
Published Feb. 18, 2023|Updated Feb. 23, 2023

Once upon a time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was an Advanced Placement fan.

In his 2021 address to lawmakers, he touted Florida’s status as second in the nation in the percentage of high school graduates who had passed at least one AP exam. It was his primary example of how Florida “continues to make great strides” in K-12 education.

Two years later and DeSantis is feuding with AP publisher College Board over its new African American studies course, suggesting it’s based more on ideology than fact. The College Board pushed back, accusing the DeSantis administration of playing politics and spreading misinformation.

DeSantis’ response: Maybe Florida can live without College Board, which also administers the SAT college entrance exam.

Courses in the International Baccalaureate program are “actually more rigorous than AP, and the colleges accept it,” DeSantis said Tuesday. The same is true of the Cambridge program offered at some high schools, he argued.

“So Florida students are going to have that ability, that is not going to be diminished. In fact, we are going to continue to work to expand it,” the governor said. “But it is not clear to me that this particular operator is the one that is going to be needed in the future.”

Banishing the College Board from Florida could impact the state’s high school students in significant ways. Here are four questions to ponder:

What does the College Board do in Florida?

As DeSantis noted in 2021, the College Board is a major player in providing accelerated academic courses to high school students.

In 2021, the state had 199,428 teens sit for 366,150 AP exams, with 50.9% scoring a 3 or better on the 5-point scale. Many universities across the nation offer students credit for those scores — a critical factor for families looking to lower tuition.

“My son graduated high school with 30 AP credits,” Hillsborough County parent Peter Bolam told the Tampa Bay Times via email. “At Florida State University that translated into a savings of almost $6,500 in tuition costs.”

Pasco County senior Stella Tucker said she’s using a combination of AP and community college dual enrollment courses to earn a free associate degree while still in high school. The model helps prepare her for university studies, she said, while making it less onerous to complete.

“We would be completely remiss to write off AP classes,” Tucker said.

At least for now, the state encourages AP course participation. It has paid $97 per exam for students to allow access that otherwise might not be available and counts success on the exams as part of its high school grading accountability system.

Beyond that, the state has paid AP teachers $50 for each student who earns a 3 or better. Last year, it budgeted $4 million to prepare teachers for the courses as a way to improve minority student participation and success in Advanced Placement as required.

Braulio Colón, executive director of the Florida College Access Network, said that while other choices such as the International Baccalaureate program, Cambridge and dual enrollment do exist, AP is “by far the most utilized option.”

Dual enrollment for joint high school and college credit, also paid for by the state, has about 60,000 Florida students.

“Eliminating state support for these (AP) classes would significantly reduce rigorous coursework options for all Florida students,” Colón said. “This would negatively impact learning in our high schools, student’s competitiveness on college applications and their readiness for life after high school.”

What about the SAT?

In addition to its AP courses, the College Board administers the SAT college entrance exam. Just over 190,000 Florida high schoolers took the test in 2022, representing 87% of possible students. Its average score was among the lowest 10 in the nation.

The ACT college entrance exam, administered by a separate nonprofit, is also available but has much lower participation.

These tests have broad implications for Floridians because of their wide-ranging uses.

Teens can use the results as a substitute for their state high school graduation testing requirements in language arts and algebra. They submit them to Florida’s universities, which unlike many other states’ institutions require standardized test scores for admission.

Students also submit their scores to gain eligibility for Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship, which many students use to cover costs in the State University System.

“SAT and Bright Futures are joined at the hip,” said Colón of the Florida College Access Network. “It’s an example that suggests the implications for reducing access to the SAT would need to be fully understood.”

In 2021-22, the state issued 119,837 new and renewed Bright Futures scholarships, totaling $604.7 million.

How did we get here?

When DeSantis first ran for governor, he had a rather nondescript conservative education platform. He called for things like amped-up civics lessons and expanded voucher options.

During his reelection campaign, he had taken a more strident tone. Frequently criticizing schools for trying to indoctrinate children in liberal ideology, often without citing specifics, the governor focused on changing Florida’s culture.

He signed legislation restricting what schools could teach about race and gender. He approved measures making it easier to challenge library books over their content. He enacted laws he said would empower parents to take back the schools.

The College Board’s AP African American studies course drew DeSantis’ attention. Last month, he publicly attacked the course as promoting ideology over truth, and demanded changes before Florida public high schools would be permitted to offer it.

When the College Board finally released its official framework for the course, it left out some concepts DeSantis had complained about. DeSantis claimed credit, and critics blasted the College Board for capitulating. The College Board shot back that DeSantis and his administration were misrepresenting facts to advance their political agenda.

Then DeSantis said what he said about looking for something other than the College Board.

What happens next?

In the absence of legislation, students and their families are left with many questions. Among them: Would lawmakers phase out the College Board’s involvement or cut it off immediately? What would happen to students who have already amassed AP credits? How would Florida make other opportunities for college credits just as accessible?

DeSantis said he’s already in conversation with lawmakers about bringing in alternatives.

For the advanced courses, he mentioned International Baccalaureate, Cambridge and dual enrollment. Each already has some presence in Florida schools but are not always readily available. Dual enrollment has course and grade prerequisites that AP does not.

High-ranking Department of Education officials have hinted in social media that an organization called Classic Learning Test, or CLT, is a potential option to fill in for SAT.

Related: Florida is considering a ‘classical and Christian’ alternative to the SAT

Primarily used by home-schooling families, Classic Learning Test is touted by supporters as an alternative “that orients people to the perennial truths of the great classical and Christian tradition.”

The group is having a national seminar in Florida this spring. It has marketed itself by saying, “Instead of giving your business to College Board, consider taking one of our exams. At CLT, our mission is to reconnect knowledge and virtue by providing meaningful assessments and connections to seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty.”

House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, has shown support for change.

“There are other providers in the market capable of preparing our students for success at the next level,” Renner told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau via email. “We will evaluate and contract with providers that are focused on delivering high-quality and fact-based education, not indoctrination.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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