AP students in bay area get mixed results; so do their teachers

St. Petersburg High is home to a prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It has ranked as high as No. 24 on the Newsweek list of top high schools. The governor is an alum. So can it really be the same school where some of the college-caliber Advanced Placement courses have pass rates as low as 8.6 percent, 5.3 percent, 0 percent?

The answer is yes. And parents like Evelyn Rosetti are taking notice.

Rosetti's daughter will begin taking AP classes at St. Petersburg High next year, but there's one class she'll steer clear of. Rosetti learned how few of one teacher's students passed the AP exam, and her daughter already struggles in that subject.

"Her chances of succeeding are lessened by a teacher who doesn't have a high success rate," said Rosetti, who is president of the school's Parent Teacher Student Association.

At the request of the St. Petersburg Times, the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts put together lists of nearly every AP teacher in each county — about 800 in all — along with their students' scores on the rigorous, standardized AP tests that accompany them.

The results are all over the map. Under some teachers, every student passes. Under others, none do.

"Probably the first year, (new AP teachers) deserve a lot of slack," said Penny Cathey, a veteran AP U.S. history teacher at East Lake High in North Pinellas. "But they should get better every year. If they're still down there (with poor results), there's something to be looked at."

As much as people still obsess over the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, it's AP scores that are becoming more and more important. And not just for students.

Credit three trends: A national push to get more students into AP classes. A growing spotlight on teacher quality. And a new state formula for grading high schools, which will soon put more weight on AP passage rates.

With that, schools will have no choice but to pay even more attention to which teachers are best helping students over the bar. Even if it's not always easy.

To be sure, some AP scores in Pinellas and Hillsborough wave red flags. They appear to be too low in schools with sterling reputations. On the other extreme, there are scores that call out for recognition because they appear to be so high in schools where academic honors don't come easy. But for most results, it may be tough to tease out which factors contributed.

AP programs in Florida have never been more in flux. Not only is there a massive wave of new students, there are more fledgling teachers to keep up with them.

"Teacher accountability is hot," said Paula Nelson, principal of Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, which like many schools in Florida is seeing a steep rise in AP test takers but a dip in pass rates. "But I don't think you can just look at the results and say, 'This teacher needs to go.' "

Unlike FCAT results, it's impossible to tell from AP scores how much a student progressed under a particular teacher. The FCAT is designed to measure a student's gains over many years, and in the case of math and reading, over consecutive years. AP tests are a one-shot deal.

Then there's this: Given a nationwide push to put more middle-of-the-road students into AP classes — a push in which Florida is a leader — the student factor in AP scores has never been more of a wild card.

At Durant High in Plant City, seven of Dan McFarland's 18 AP biology students passed their AP exams last year, giving him one of the highest pass rates in Hills­borough. But McFarland said he's not sure whether he's better than the three teachers at other schools who had no students pass.

"We're not all plowing the same field," he said.

But parents should still be able to see the results and ask the tough questions, said Jennifer Faliero, a Hillsborough County School Board member. She offered a few herself.

"How many kids have you had that transferred out? And how many kids have requested this teacher?" said Faliero, whose daughter is taking four AP classes at Durant High. "There are just some teachers you don't want your kid to have."

In many cases, a common factor in less-than-stellar scores may be a new AP teacher.

Districts are churning out platoons of new AP teachers, often by tapping staffers who teach traditional courses. Pinellas alone probably has dozens of new AP teachers each year, said Bill Lawrence, who oversees the district's AP program.

Most of the new AP teachers in Pinellas and Hillsborough attend a five-day training to get acquainted with new material, tests and teaching techniques. Hillsborough also has a mentoring program, while Pinellas is creating one.

But "research shows teachers need about three years to achieve the average results for teachers in that course," Lawrence said.

Demetrius Williams had never taught an AP course before administrators at Gibbs High came to him three years ago.

His background was in sociology and psychology. He said they asked him to teach AP human geography.

Over two years, 35 of his students — all ninth-graders — took the AP test. But none of them passed. None of them, in fact, even scored a 2 on the tests' 1-to-5 grading scale.

"With anyone, that would raise some level of concern," said Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon. "As a school leader, I'd say maybe it's time to try something different."

Williams is not teaching AP this year. He said he wanted to return to the subjects he knew best. But he echoed a growing complaint among AP teachers: that many of his students had "borderline" reading scores and were not prepared for the rigors of college-level work.

"It's very easy to give more merit to a teacher whose students are placed by their academic prowess," he said, "as opposed to giving credit to a teacher who has at-risk students . . . who struggle with a regular curriculum."

Cathey, the East Lake teacher, agreed to a point.

She said many of her students are talented — and they've helped give her some of the highest pass rates of any AP U.S. history teacher on either side of Tampa Bay. Over the past five years, her students' pass rates have climbed from 55 to 76 percent even as her total student load has grown from 82 to 121. The district pass rate is 34 percent.

"But I'm taking credit, too," she said. "If you give (students) the information they need, they're going to produce."

Supporters of the AP surge hope the same is true of new AP teachers.

"The most critical thing we have to do is train (AP) teachers to be good at this particular coursework," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "Some of these teachers didn't get the results they liked. That doesn't mean they're bad teachers. It means they have to improve their skills, and they're doing it."

At St. Petersburg High, principal Al Bennett hopes that will happen with his second-year AP U.S. history teacher.

Last year, 11 of 128 students in Ryan Hyypio's class passed the AP exam, a rate of 8.6 percent. In the four previous years, under a different teacher, the pass rates ranged from 33 to 47 percent.

"It was just such a whirlwind," said Hyypio, 33, who was handed the biggest AP U.S. history load of any teacher in Pinellas. "Having the amount of students that I did was overwhelming."

Bennett said the school turned to Hyypio after his predecessor abruptly left for a consulting job. He said Hyypio has the tools to be top notch and will continue to get the training and support he needs to improve.

A new teacher with potential might not get the best results right away, Bennett said.

"But you know they're going to roll their sleeves up."

Times staff writer Tom Marshall and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

About AP

Cost: The state essentially pays for every AP test, at $86 a pop. Last year's tab ran to nearly $600,000 in Pinellas and about $2 million in Hillsborough.

Scoring: AP tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, which is geared to whether the student should receive college credit. A 1 is "no recommendation" for college credit. A 2 is "possibly qualified" for credit. A 3 is "qualified." A 4 is "well qualified." A 5 is "extremely well qualified." Many colleges award credit for 3 and above.

Growth in participation: In 2003, 60,978 students took AP tests in Florida. In 2009, 131,818 did. Students in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties collectively took more than 39,000 AP exams in 2009 — up 8,000 from the year before.

Dip in passage: In 2003, Florida students passed 49.6 percent of exams. In 2009, 42.9 percent did.

To check AP scores: Parents in Pinellas and Hillsborough can contact their schools or go to links.tampabay.com.

AP students in bay area get mixed results; so do their teachers 12/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 6:44pm]

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