School districts grapple with Florida’s AP course confusion

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School building. By littleny via iStock for WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — School district leaders across the state are taking a patchwork of approaches to a college-credit psychology course, as many high-school students head back to class this week amid a dustup between Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and the College Board.

Confusion over the College Board’s Advanced Placement psychology course is rooted in a controversial Florida law and a state regulation that restrict instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

The state Department of Education reportedly told school superintendents in a conference call that schools were not allowed to teach a unit in the psychology course dealing with “gender and sexual orientation,” which led the College Board last week to issue a statement saying the state restrictions would prohibit teaching the course.

But after news reports that the course couldn’t be taught in Florida, state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz fired back at the College Board. In a memo Friday, Diaz told superintendents that the course could be taught “in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate.”

Nevertheless, uncertainty has continued as classes prepare to begin Thursday in many districts. The issue poses a potential minefield for teachers trying to prepare students for college, follow course curriculums and obey state laws and regulations.

A number of districts have dropped the psychology course and replaced it with other college-credit classes. Some are moving ahead with the AP course, which 28,000 Florida students took last year, according to the College Board. And other districts are struggling to decide what to do.

In Broward County, for example, classes resume on Aug. 21. As of Tuesday evening, district officials remained on the fence about the course.

“The district is continuing to evaluate its course offerings to ensure compliance with state laws while also meeting the needs of our students,” John J. Sullivan, the Broward district’s chief communications and legislative affairs director, said in an email Tuesday.

Pinellas County, meanwhile, is among the districts that decided to forego the College Board’s course. The county is “transitioning” to a college-credit course offered by Cambridge AICE, the district said on its website. About 1,300 students in the county who were enrolled in the AP course were automatically signed up for the Cambridge AICE course, according to the website.

In contrast, Suwannee County Superintendent of Schools Ted Roush said he has “backed teaching the traditional AP psychology course” but left it up to individual school administrators to decide whether to offer the course, switch to an alternative college-credit course or offer a “regular” psychology class to students.

Roush told The News Service of Florida on Monday that one Suwannee County high school was retaining the College Board course and another hadn’t decided.

Roush sent a memo to parents, students and school administrators noting that the course, if taught, has to align with the state’s standards.

“Failure to do so will result in district and state intervention,” his memo said.

Roush also said the course needs to comply with a separate state law restricting how bias and racial discrimination are taught in schools.

That 2022 law, which DeSantis dubbed the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act,” lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.

Part of the AP psychology course “does talk about bias and discriminatory behavior,” Roush said.

“So that’s another piece we need to be cognizant of and careful about how we administer that content,” he added.

Roush also warned that students might not get college credit for courses that aren’t credentialed or recognized by the College Board or post-secondary institutions, “depending on how this plays out.”

“None of us (superintendents) have gone looking to be placed in the middle of this,” he said. “This feels like a political fight more than anything else.”

After Diaz released his memo Friday, the College Board said it “represents revised guidance” on the course.

“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,” the College Board said in a statement.

Diaz’s memo, however, might have increased confusion over the course. The Florida Education Association teachers union and the Florida PTA this week pressed the commissioner to clarify the state’s stance.

“While we are grateful for your letter of August 4, indicating that this popular college-level course can be taught ‘in its entirety,’ we believe that the subsequent condition, ‘age and developmentally appropriate,’ is so ambiguous and prone to subjective interpretation that further clarification is needed,” Florida PTA president Carolyn Nelson-Goedert wrote to Diaz on Monday.

The Florida Education Association asked Diaz to “clearly and unambiguously state that nothing in the AP psychology course violates” Florida law or rules.

“Districts, parents, students and teachers need to know AP psychology can be offered in Florida’s public schools in its entirety without any modifications, just as it has for decades, and be in compliance with the law,” FEA President Andrew Spar wrote to the commissioner.

The muddle over the course comes as local school officials also deal with issues such as teacher and staff shortages, a statewide universal voucher program approved this year by lawmakers and an oppressive heat wave.

Rebooting the school year after the summer break is always a stressful time for administrators, teachers, students and parents, Florida Association of District School Superintendents CEO Bill Montford told the News Service.

The controversy over the College Board course has exacerbated the situation, said Montford, a former state senator and onetime Leon County schools superintendent.

“It’s a tense time, but it always is. This is always a tough time for school districts,” Montford said.

Dropping the college-credit course altogether could hit teachers in the wallet. Educators get bonuses for students who receive certain grades on course exams.

Montford said his association is assisting school districts that want to keep offering the course to ensure they comply with state standards.

“This is a very, very complicated issue. And there’s a lot at stake here, for the students. For an AP class, there are financial implications, there are educational implications, and so there’s a lot to consider,” Montford said.

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