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.
In Flagler County, where students returned to school today, AP Psychology, one of the more popular courses in Flagler Palm Coast High School’s accelerated curriculum, will no longer be taught. Students enrolled in AP Psychology have been shifted to the International Baccalaureate’s Standard Level Psychology course. The course has a unit on gender identity and social roles, but the IB–a more rigorous, more liberal and free-thinking curriculum than AP–has generally remained under the radar of culture warriors and the Florida Department of Education’s ideological litmus-testing.
Moore, writing parents, students and faculty on Aug. 7, attributed her decision to “recent changes and the evolving educational landscape.” She said the district was “transitioning” to IB, a euphemism applied in other districts as well.
“While AP Psychology is currently still offered in Florida,” Moore wrote, “we want to ensure that students have the opportunity to take the college-level Psychology course and exam for articulated credit, so Flagler Schools have opted to offer IB Psychology.” It’s not clear how offering AP for credit, as it always was, would have been any different, unless readers of the letter were familiar with what made it necessary: the fear that teachers teaching AP Psychology could be in violation of state rules censuring teachings about non-binary gender and sexuality.
The state Department of Education reportedly told school superintendents in a conference call that schools were not allowed to teach a unit in the AP 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.
“We are sad to have learned that today the Florida Department of Education has effectively banned AP Psychology in the state by instructing Florida superintendents that teaching foundational content on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal under state law. The state has said districts are free to teach AP Psychology only if it excludes any mention of these essential topics,” the statement read. “To be clear, any AP Psychology course taught in Florida will violate either Florida law or college requirements. Therefore, we advise Florida districts not to offer AP Psychology until Florida reverses their decision and allows parents and students to choose to take the full 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 begin today 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.
Like Flagler County, 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.
A Flagler school district spokesman confirmed late this morning that the district was sticking to its decision to drop AP Psychology even after the state Department of Education’s flip-flop, as it would have been disruptive not to. All Flagler County students previously enrolled in AP Psychology were automatically shifted to the IB version.
In practice, it’s may not be as as significant a disruption as it appears, at least not in the immediate day-to-day: at that level in the program’s early years at FPC, the IB and AP psychology class was taught to both AP and IB students combined, by the same teacher. Only the assessment was different. As the programs have grown, the classes are now taught by different teachers, but wil now be both following the IB curriculum.
“The key difference between the two courses,” the superintendent’s letter stated, “is that in IB Psychology SL [standard level], students conduct an internal assessment (IA) in the form of an experimental study. This IA is part of the overall exam score. The IB exam consist of two timed ‘papers’ or written responses. AP Psychology’s exam is a mixture of multiple choice and timed written response.” The school is leaving it to students to opt out of the course if they so choose.
Moore could have taken a chance and still offered AP Psychology, but she is an interim superintendent facing a school board stocked with two members who are strictly aligned with–and enamored of–the governor’s culture war issues, however irrelevant to student achievement, and a third whose mercurial behavior on the board and poor understanding of district issues often leave the leadership guessing as to the best course for students, or at least the course that would insulate them most from unpredictable board disruptions.
In Broward County classes resume on Aug. 21. On Wednesday, district officials said they would require parental consent for students to take the course.
“Recognizing the depth and breadth of topics covered in AP Psychology and in line with the importance of prioritizing student well-being and parental choice, we have decided to make enrollment for this elective an ‘opt-in’ process that expressly requires parental consent,” said Superintendent Peter Licata said in a statement. About 2,500 students took the AP Psychology course last year, the district said.
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. (A federal judge has called the act’s application in colleges unconstitutional.)
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, new rules on the uses of pronouns, on bathroom usage, 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.
“We understand that this change may raise questions or concerns among students and parents,” Moore said in her letter to the Flagler schools academic community.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida