For a decade, Florida has gone gangbusters with Advanced Placement classes, pouring students and money into the college-caliber, high school courses that some say are a good way to prepare "average" students for higher education.
Florida ranks No. 1 in the percentage of graduating seniors taking the standardized AP tests, No. 5 in the percentage of seniors passing them, No. 3 in the number of tests taken. The state —one of only three that picks up the $86 tab for every test — has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on AP. And increasingly, its approach is under scrutiny as stories erupt about students with limited reading skill trying to wrap their brains around, say, the rise and fall of Robespierre.
But in one respect, Florida's efforts appear to be paying off.
Families are saving tens of millions of dollars each year from the rapidly growing numbers of students who are passing AP exams, which usually allows them to exempt college courses, a St. Petersburg Times analysis has found.
Florida students passed 114,430 AP tests this year, up from 66,511 five years ago. Even assuming a fair chunk of those tests won't translate into credits, the Times estimates Florida families will save at least $40 million in tuition and fees.
The savings from AP to taxpayers is murkier. It's not clear whether the program, which cost the state $58 million last year, is paying for itself. A full return-on-investment analysis has never been done.
The Times found the college credits earned by this year's AP test passers will potentially save another $30 million for taxpayers. But it's hard to gauge how real those savings are. (See an explanation of how the Times estimated the savings on AP classes.)
At Florida State University this year, a majority of incoming student had nearly enough AP credits to exempt a full semester. At the University of Florida, many students had enough to exempt two semesters. Thanks to AP, those universities don't have to offer as many basic courses, such as freshman English. But they may have to offer more junior- and senior-level courses, which cost more.
FSU and UF officials said it's unclear whether students who pass AP classes earn degrees faster. But anecdotally, there's an explosion in the number of students there graduating with double majors.
Parents like Brian and Teresa Keefer of Tampa are among those benefiting from AP credits.
Their oldest daughter did well enough in AP classes to earn nine college credits at the University of Central Florida — enough to bypass summer class requirements and all the expenses of living on campus over the summer.
The Keefers' youngest daughter also is taking AP classes to help make her more competitive for college admissions. But with Brian Keefer, an insurance executive, out of work for 18 months, the money matters, too.
AP is "a very good deal," Teresa Keefer said.
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The Times analysis puts focus on a piece missing from the growing debate about AP: the price tag.
In the spring, nearly 160,000 Florida students took AP tests, up from 38,000 in 2000. But that growth hasn't come cheap.
For years, the state has given school districts extra money for every AP test a student passes. (The tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, and a 3 — considered passing — is enough to earn credit at most colleges.) The districts must use the money to pay for AP tests and teacher bonuses, but some of it is spent at their discretion.
In the 2007-08 fiscal year, AP funding peaked at $79 million. Growing expense drew the attention of lawmakers, who asked the Legislature's research arm to weigh costs and benefits.
In 2006, the group concluded the AP funding formula was too generous. In response, the Legislature cut funding by a third in 2008. It tried to cut more in 2009, but backed off after AP supporters rallied.
The Times analysis shows the program is increasingly cost effective. But is it cost effective enough?
Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, the state's biggest cheerleader for AP, says yes.
The millions saved by families is "just the first wave of returns," said Smith, a former vice president at the College Board, the private, nonprofit organization that oversees AP nationwide. The state will continue to benefit financially, he said, as those students do better in college and then in the workplace.
Influential lawmakers like AP, too. But for some of them, cost-benefit questions remain.
The ability to exempt college classes is an important benefit of AP, said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, even if those students don't earn degrees faster. But the state has reached a crossroads with AP, Legg said, given passage rates that have fallen as participation rates have soared. It's not clear, he said, whether programs such as dual enrollment — where high school students take actual college classes — are a better fit for more students, or a better financial deal for the state.
As education budgets shrink, those questions grow more important, Legg said.
AP is a "wise investment," he said. "But maybe dual enrollment and honors (classes) are more suited … and cheaper."
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While overall costs for AP are down, one part is up by a ton: the tab for the tests themselves.
AP tests cost the state either $86 or $56 a pop. And this year, the total reached $20.1 million, up 68 percent from five years ago, according to a Times survey of Florida school districts.
Florida is No. 1 among states in the amount of taxpayer money sent to the College Board, which earned $621 million in fiscal year 2009.
Unlike the cost for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the state doesn't directly pay for AP tests. Districts do.
The Times asked the Florida Department of Education how much districts spent on AP exams. The response: We don't track that.
The College Board would not provide that information, either.
So the Times asked all 67 districts for their figures, going back five years. Every district but Gadsden County responded.
The totals are not exact, because some districts could provide only best estimates. But they're close.
Pinellas costs rose from $440,000 to $736,000 in five years. Hillsborough went from $1.2 million to $2.2 million.
In most states, parents pay the lion's share of AP test costs, though many states pick up most or all of the cost for low-income students. Few pay for the rest.
Florida's decision to do so sends a strong message to high schools, said Smith, the education commissioner: "It's a recognition … that we value kids who are doing college-level work, and as a state, are willing to support that level of work."
Is the state getting its money's worth from AP? It depends on several tough questions.
Are students who take and/or pass AP classes more likely to go to college? More likely to do well in college? More likely to earn degrees faster?
There's not much research to answer those questions and what there is tends to be contradictory and contested.
A 2009 state legislative report found that on average, students who earned college credits through accelerated courses earned degrees with 12 fewer credit hours than those who did not. But the study did not differentiate between students who earned credits through AP, dual enrollment or International Baccalaureate programs.
The College Board pointed to two studies that found students who passed AP tests earn college degrees faster. In one, low-income students were 26 percent more likely to earn a degree than similar students in similar schools who didn't take AP classes.
Kristin Klopfenstein, an economics professor and senior researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, came to a different conclusion. For a study published this year by Harvard Education Press, she found that students who passed AP tests in Texas did not earn degrees more quickly than other students. But dual enrollment students did.
Klopfenstein said she did not have enough information about the costs of dual enrollment to say it's a better deal. But she said the results should make policymakers take a closer at AP, to determine if its rapid growth is truly in the public interest.
"I don't mean to imply that it's not," she said. "I'm just saying we don't know. Nobody's asking."
Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.