BROOKSVILLE — More and more Hernando County students are taking Advanced Placement courses, part of a statewide push to accelerate students academically and increase rigor in the schools.
But the greater number of students taking these courses comes at a cost.
The overall percentage of students who passed AP tests last school year — fewer than half of them — is at a five-year low in the county. It's also below state and global averages.
In the spring of 2013, 915 students in the district took 1,460 AP exams, with roughly 45 percent of them earning at least one score of "3" or higher out of possible "5" on the exam. That score is considered passing and is high enough to earn students credit at most colleges.
The scores — and the number of students taking the test — vary widely from school to school.
The highest overall scores and the greatest number of AP test takers were at Springstead High School, which houses the district's only International Baccalaureate program.
Last year, about 60 percent of Springstead students earned at least one passing mark on the tests, which is about 9 points higher than the state average of 51 and just shy of the global average of 61.
But that is down from the previous year's passing rate, just above 66 percent.
There's a good reason for that, says principal Susan Duval: growth.
"We're okay with it," she said. "We're trying to involve more kids in taking AP courses."
The school had 301 students take the exam in 2013. That is up 7.5 percent from last year.
But just because the school is satisfied with the scores, doesn't mean it's not trying to improve them.
Duval said that beginning this year she has asked longtime AP history teacher John Imhof to take a leadership role in the tests.
"It's been very hard for us administratively for us to devote as much time on this as we need," she said. "He's got the depth of knowledge and the relationship with the AP teachers to really enhance."
For the most recent year, Imhof's United Sates History students earned an average score of 4.17 on the test — well above the state and global averages.
Duval said Imhof will work with other AP teachers on curriculum strategies and how to use the AP data for self-assessment.
"We're happy with what we've done but we want to improve," she said. "This focus, I think, will show some results. We need another pair of eyes on what's going on with the data, what trends can be identified, where we can pick up more students."
Weeki Wachee High School had the lowest scores in the district last year — with roughly 33 percent of students passing the test.
The school, which opened in 2010, has only offered the AP exam for the past three years.
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of students taking the test grew dramatically, from 41 to 132.
Weeki Wachee principal Troy LaBarbara says he expects to see more growth in that number this year as well as higher test scores.
"Our goal is to increase rigor at Weeki Wachee," he said.
And another thing: He wants to catch Springstead and have more than 60 percent of students passing the exam.
"That's the model," he said.
This year, LaBarbara says he plans for roughly 294 tests to be given. He wants to see scores increase 8 to 9 percent.
He wants his AP teachers to meet with other successful AP teachers in the school and across the district. He said he'll monitor them closely and watch how they are progressing.
Hernando High, which saw a small increase in the number of students taking the exam from 2012 to 2013, saw the only increase in student passing rates of any of the high schools, with about 45 percent of students earning at least one passing mark on the test. Central High added about 30 students and saw a minor drop in its passing score.
Nature Coast Technical saw the largest year-to-year drop, with the percentage of students earning a passing score falling from 56 percent in 2012 to 38 percent in 2013.
This could not be blamed on a large bump in the number of students taking the tests, which increased by only two.
Nature Coast principal Toni-Ann Noyes pointed toward a number of factors that may have led to a decrease in student achievement: Students not prepared for the rigor of AP classes, testing burnout and an AP teacher out on emergency leave.
She said the school has trained a new AP teacher this year and tightened up the criteria for students to sign up for AP courses.
Contact Danny Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.