Thousands of high school students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties bent over Advanced Placement tests this month, striving to earn college credit before they ever set foot on campus.
Advanced Placement courses, once reserved for a school's best and brightest, have gained broader popularity among schools and students not always known for their academic rigor. In Florida, the numbers of students taking the college-caliber classes has almost doubled in the last five years.
The phenomenon has produced an interesting side debate: Are students entering college with too much college credit under their belt?
Florida's schools largely say no. "Quite the opposite," said J. Robert Spatig, director of graduate admissions for the University of South Florida But nationwide, some colleges and universities are moving away from unlimited credit for the Advanced Placement courses.
"In the view of the faculty, it just feels a little out of control," said James M. Glaser, dean of undergraduate education at Tufts University, which recently began capping Advanced Placement credits at five.
Compare that to the University of Florida, where 98 percent of 2009's incoming freshmen completed an Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge University's Advanced International Certification of Education. UF freshmen could claim as many as 45 college credits.
Glaser said the Tufts faculty recognizes that a student who takes Advanced Placement coursework shows a level of motivation that is attractive, but ultimately professors felt that the classes didn't always align with what would have been taught at Tufts.
Still, no one seems to doubt that Advanced Placement does a good job of preparing students for more rigorous coursework.
The College Board, creator of the Advanced Placement exam, boasts students who complete one of the courses are more likely to graduate from college within four years than those who don't.
"It's exciting to see more and more high-quality students take freshman classes every year," said Ed Gillis, executive director of admissions for the University of Miami, where overall applications are up 18 percent over last year. "It keeps the faculty very happy."
Figures show that just as high schools are administering more Advanced Placement courses and tests than ever, colleges are raking in more and more freshmen with course credit earned through the tests.
The University of Tampa in 2005 admitted 283 students with Advanced Placement credit. By last year, that number climbed 68 percent to 477. The story is similar at the University of South Florida, where in 2005, 29 percent of the freshmen brought credit with them. By last year, that was up to a whopping 46 percent — almost half of the freshman class.
"We still view it as a positive," said Dennis Nostrand, vice president for enrollment management at UT. "It's a sign that the students are stretching themselves to try to take more challenging courses."
The Ivy League also appears to remain impressed with the curriculum and the caliber Advanced Placement students.
"It is a curriculum we all know and understand and have respect for," said Jim Miller, Brown University's dean of admissions.
Florida admissions counselors told the St. Petersburg Times they are less interested in the exam scores than in the fact that students took the higher-level courses, in part because senior scores aren't available until months after students are admitted.
A national report released in February showed that Florida ranked No. 5 among states in the percentage of graduating seniors who scored a passing 3 or above on at least one Advanced Placement exam. But as more students took the tests, the state's overall passage rate was dropping.
Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard University, said that at his university, the scores provide a more important indicator of a students' academic caliber. And the school rewards only the highest scores.
At the University of Florida, a score of 3 out of 5 in art history could earn a student three college credits, while a score of 4 or 5 could bring six college credits.
But an incoming Harvard student must earn a score of 5 out of 5 to get any college credit at all. Even that only awards the student a half to one full credit, depending on the subject.
"The AP continues to be a very good predictor of how well students achieve at Harvard," Fitzsimmons said, adding that the growing ranks of students taking the classes doesn't alarm him. "Florida is known at Harvard as a place that does offer lots of IB and AP students, so we know those students are going to be well prepared."
Steve Orlando, a spokesman for the University of Florida, cautioned that while a student's penchant for taking more challenging classes can't hurt, it still doesn't guarantee admission. Advanced Placement hasn't lost its luster, but neither has class diversity — economic, athletic, ethnic and more.
"We're looking at the whole student, and what that student can bring to a campus," he said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.