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This February, the internet exploded with allegations that the Florida Department of Education, under right-wing Gov. Ron DeSantis, had successfully pressured the College Board into changing its new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course, which is set to be launched nationwide next year. After the DeSantis administration banned the course, the College Board — which runs the SATs, AP programs and more — made significant changes to the curriculum, removing authors such as bell hooks and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, as well as concepts like Black feminism and Black LGBTQ history. The news caused national backlash, not least because changing the course for Florida also meant restructuring the course nationwide. But although the College Board has pushed back on charges that they caved to the DeSantis administration, and some of the changes to the course are now being reconsidered, this controversy only scratches the surface when it comes to problems with the College Board’s influence.
For years, the College Board, a nonprofit paying no taxes, has been profiteering in numerous ways, generating over a billion dollars in revenue annually. It has sold minors’ data without their consent, underbid its competitors to win government contracts and used its position of influence over federal education standards to tailor its products and win more contracts — all in the interest of lining their pockets, not improving students’ futures.
If education was considered a public good in the United States — something every person inherently deserves — decisions about education would be centered on what benefits students the most. Centering the pursuit of profit, and doing shady things at the expense of young scholars, certainly isn’t that.
But the College Board’s educational profiteering is indicative of a systemwide issue, representing business as usual in education under racial capitalism.
The big money makers: AP Courses, the SATs and selling student data
Currently the SAT costs $60 with many taking the test repeatedly, in addition to taking the PSAT (another $18) to prepare. In the class of 2022, 1.7 million students took the SAT, generating tens of millions in test fees.
The College Board also works to maintain a monopoly in standardized testing. Until around 2014, the ACT, a competing college-entrance exam, was more common than the SAT in the Midwest and South. Many view the ACT, which is an achievement rather than aptitude test, as better able to assess what students have learned. But rather than letting states offer both tests, the College Board has aggressively lobbied many states to solely use the SAT so that their product can dominate the market.
For example, from 2001 until 2016, Colorado high school juniors were required to take the ACT. But through an increased investment in lobbying as well as underbidding the ACT, the College Board successfully changed state education policy, so that all Colorado juniors are now required to take the SAT instead. At least eight other states have followed suit, only contracting with the College Board for their students to take the SAT, rather than allowing both tests. Ultimately, despite being a nonprofit purportedly “mission driven” to “serve the education community,” the College Board pushes for policies to increase their wealth and not to benefit students.
But that’s not the only way the board monetizes standardized testing. It also makes about 47 cents for each SAT and PSAT student whose names it sells to universities — a figure that in 2022 added up to at least $800,000 (and perhaps far more). Those names help universities market themselves to students they already know they aren’t going to accept, but whose applications bring in more money and increase the schools’ selectivity rate, leading to higher rankings.
And those pennies are only a fraction of the total amount the board makes selling student data. Upwards of $100 million in some years comes from selling data to tech companies. When students create profiles on the College Board’s website in order to view their test scores, their information is sold to companies like Facebook (now Meta), Google, Microsoft, Snapchat and Yahoo for advertising purposes — a practice that in 2019 led one Illinois family to sue the College Board over charges that they illegally sold minors’ data.
The College Board is also woven into our public school system through the circular and mutually beneficial relationship it has with Common Core nationwide educational standards, which were created in part by the Board’s CEO, David Coleman. There have been many instances of the College Board changing tests to be more aligned with the Common Core, as they can get more market share than the ACT by aligning the tests with state standards.
The College Board and systemic racism in education
The College Board’s apparent failure to stand up to the DeSantis administration in Florida has led to widespread concerns that Black students won’t be allowed to learn their own history. But there’s a deeper connection to racial capitalism here as well.
Schools that are majority Black are less likely to have AP classes. As a 2019 study found, white teachers often discourage Black students from taking AP classes. Taking AP courses as Black student within segregated schools often means you are one of the few Black students in the class. Although AP classes have long been touted as a means of making college more affordable — by allowing students to start earning college credits while still in high school — Black students face systemic barriers to taking AP classes, on top of the fact that Black people have more student loan debt and are more likely to struggle paying for college than white students.
Furthermore, the SAT was designed to weed out Black students and others seen as “inferior.” And while in past years, the College Board has published demographic data about participation and performance in its AP tests and courses by race, in 2022, they stopped, sparking criticism about the board’s lack of transparency regarding underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in AP courses. (The College Board claimed they were streamlining the data to make it more user friendly and did not stop publishing demographic data on its SAT tests.)
Then there’s the overall segregation, exclusivity and discrimination of the public school system, where majority white schools are better resourced and have more AP classes. All of these facts compound how ridiculous it is that white politicians control how Black history is taught.
What happened in Florida is getting a lot of attention, but it isn’t unprecedented. The AP World History course has been widely criticized as Eurocentric for focusing primarily on the Western World and at times implying the history of people of color started with our colonization. In 2015, the College Board changed its U.S. History course after right-wing politicians and organizations complained that it was not patriotic enough because it omitted “American exceptionalism” and focused too much on the impact of colonization on Indigenous people in North America.
When a large state like Florida changes curriculum, it influences what districts across the country purchase, so that reactionary and racist approaches like DeSantis’ influence schools nationwide. But it’s not only a Republican governor’s actions that lead the College Board to side with white supremacy. For years a College Board executive was the Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, where he worked to prohibit discussions of racism in public school classrooms.
The image of the Yale-educated DeSantis limiting today’s students’ access to education may seem ironic, but it all makes sense when you consider that both facism and neoliberalism enable profiteering in our nation’s schools, working to destroy education in different ways. The intertwining of state and federal government with this business masquerading as a charity illustrates how white supremacy operates within the school system.
Across the educational landscape, Black people are hyper-exploited: Black students are being undereducated in under-resourced schools to eventually be underpaid; Black students who attend “good” (read: majority white and well-resourced) schools and take AP classes are isolated and can’t learn accurate information about their own history. The College Board’s profiteering within this setting is a microcosm of broader racial capitalism, where white supremacy and capitalism are inherently linked and inseparable.
A market-based approach to what should be a public good hurts all students, but also deliberately fails to understand how both race and class impact the experiences of students of color, or to recognize that what hurts Black students hurts other students as well.
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