Questions swirl around AP, Cambridge psychology courses in Florida

A letter Friday from the education commissioner complicates the issue.
Van Ayres, Hillsborough County Schools interim superintendent, talks with reporters after the yearly back-to-school news conference at Hillsborough High School on Friday in Tampa. Later in the day, AP psychology students learned they will be moved to a similar class offered by Cambridge International.
Van Ayres, Hillsborough County Schools interim superintendent, talks with reporters after the yearly back-to-school news conference at Hillsborough High School on Friday in Tampa. Later in the day, AP psychology students learned they will be moved to a similar class offered by Cambridge International. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 4|Updated Aug. 7

With the availability of the popular Advanced Placement psychology course in question in Florida, school districts including Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are pivoting to the college-level course offered by Cambridge International instead.

“The content is very similar,” Pinellas superintendent Kevin Hendrick said. “Our teachers are very prepared.”

But it’s unclear if students in these classes will earn college credit, as they might have when taking the AP course. At issue is whether Cambridge is revising its course to meet state demands restricting lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The College Board, which administers AP classes and exams, refused to change its course.

Education commissioner Manny Diaz told superintendents Friday that the AP course remains in the state’s catalog of offerings, and it can be offered.

“The department believes that AP Psychology can be taught in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate,” Diaz wrote in a letter late Friday.

The College Board reacted cautiously to the letter. It observed that more understanding is needed about what the commissioner meant by age- and developmentally appropriate lessons.

At the same time, the group said, “We note the clear guidance that ‘AP Psychology may be taught in its entirety.’ We hope now that Florida teachers will be able to teach the full course, including content on gender and sexual orientation, without fear of punishment in the upcoming school year.”

Hendrick was not convinced the Department of Education letter represented any new ground, saying it sounded much like what officials said in a conference call Thursday. That call prompted his and other districts to switch to the Cambridge AICE course.

Hendrick said Pinellas schools will continue with Cambridge AICE regardless. “We’re not going back,” he said. Nor is Hillsborough County, which sent letters to more than 1,800 students who had signed up for AP psychology, telling them they will be switched to Cambridge AICE.

But the Cambridge course comes with its own set of concerns. Cambridge told the state its course would follow the law restricting instruction about gender and sexual orientation — raising questions about whether the course and exam should be allowed to qualify for college credit.

“We are quite concerned that the change in the law in Florida will make changes in Cambridge’s curriculum and Cambridge’s assessment,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which evaluates advanced classes and exams and issues recommendations for college credit. “If that is the case, we will need to immediately review the Cambridge program and review our recommendation. … It is a situation that is very much in flux.”

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In recent weeks, officials at Cambridge have insisted that they have not changed the psychology course and exam since the council recommended it a year ago for college credit. They also signed a letter to the Florida Department of Education affirming that its program will be taught in a way that teachers are not violating state law.

Mitchell, of the evaluation agency, said his organization wants to ensure the Cambridge course remains true to the qualities that made it worthy of college credits.

“My biggest concern about the law is that it prohibits the analysis of a large area of psychology,” he said. “You can dress it up in a variety of ways, but this is censorship, saying a whole area in the field of psychology is not available for study.”

He advised districts to proceed with caution before pivoting from AP to Cambridge. “It would be very helpful to say, ‘Not so fast.’ It’s under review,” he said, adding that the evaluation would be done as quickly as possible.

Officials at the College Board refused to meet a state requirement that lessons on gender be removed from its AP course, saying such a deletion would remove a critical piece of what makes it college material. The American Psychological Association backed up that contention, and urged Cambridge International to follow suit.

State officials accused the College Board of creating havoc with such remarks.

“We encourage the College Board to stop playing games with Florida students and continue to offer the course and allow teachers to operate accordingly,” Department of Education spokesperson Cassie Palelis said in a written statement. “The other advanced course providers (including the International Baccalaureate program) had no issue providing the college credit psychology course.”

The changes and confusion affect thousands of teens across the state. Approximately 30,000 students had registered for AP psychology for the coming year, according to the College Board.

A spokesperson for the College Board reiterated that the group will not recognize the course if it is not taught in its entirety.

However, a student might be able to make arrangements to take the course or exam through a private school, which is not impacted by the state rule on curriculum.

The situation frustrated Palm Harbor University High School senior Eliza Lane, who had planned to take AP psychology this year. A leader of the protests against removing “The Bluest Eye” from her courses last year, Lane said she and others were waiting to see what her school does before asking her principal for permission to protest this action.

“This is an incredibly tragic legacy for the DeSantis administration to leave on education,” Lane said via email. “Not only are they depriving students of a financially and educationally valuable class, they are allowing their extremist ideology to influence the education of future generations. They’ve effectively made a laughingstock of Florida education and they should expect intense pushback from students and teachers alike.”

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

Correction: The American Council on Education is a learning evaluation organization that reviews courses and exams and makes recommendations on whether they are worthy of college credit. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described this organization.

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