For years, a growing chorus of teachers has complained that they're being swamped by kids unprepared for the rigors of Advanced Placement classes.
This week, they got a second from an unexpected source: Florida's top school official.
"I do think there is a problem in overenrollment in AP," state Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Wednesday. "There needs to be some selectivity in how kids are guided into AP, and which AP work they're guided into."
Smith did not single out Hillsborough, but no district in the state has pushed AP more. And while its AP enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years, its passage rates on standardized AP tests have dropped dramatically.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said those pass rates — 36 percent last year, compared to a national average of 57 percent — are nowhere near good enough. But she also said the district was doing the right thing in pushing more students into tougher courses that benefit them whether they pass the AP tests or not.
"You don't sit by and not challenge kids because you're afraid of a percentage on passing a test" that isn't the only measure of success, she said.
In the past decade, Florida has quadrupled the number of students taking AP classes, which are considered college caliber and were once limited to the best and brightest. But in pushing more "average" students into AP, the state has drawn concern from teachers and others who fear it's compromising quality to reach lower-performing students and potentially shortchanging those at the top.
They say AP passage rates back their case.
In 2000, the state's AP passage rate peaked at 55.6 percent. Last year, it was at 42.9 percent.
AP tests are scored on a 1-to-5 scale, where a 3 or above is usually enough to earn college credit.
Smith is a former senior vice president with the College Board, the organization that administers AP. He did not go into detail Wednesday about the extent of the overenrollment problem, or what he saw as its causes. He could not be reached for additional comment Thursday.
But Smith told the Times that as a principal, he used national pass rates as a gauge for success in his school. He also said there must be a balance between increased participation and passage rates — and that the state's new grading formula for high schools does that.
The formula, which went into effect this year, rates schools based on a list of factors, including AP participation and passage rates. This year, the formula puts twice as much weight on AP participation as passage. But in two years, those factors will be weighed equally.
"We are trying to encourage both," Smith said. "If you end up being a school that limits enrollment but has extraordinarily high performance, you won't get as recognized. If you have extraordinarily high enrollment and miserable performance, you won't get as well recognized.
Smith's comments come on the heels of a Dec. 12 Times story that published the AP test results for nearly every AP teacher in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The results are all over the map. Under some teachers, every student passes. Under others, none do.
Some teachers complained that low pass rates in their classes didn't tell the whole story — and that student caliber needed to be considered, too.
Teachers across the country are making similar arguments. In a survey of 1,000 AP teachers that drew national attention last year, the Fordham Institute found more than half said too many AP students are "in over their heads."
In Pinellas, superintendent Julie Janssen says the district is on the right track with AP.
Pinellas students took 7,686 AP tests last year — nearly 1,000 more than the year before. Although still below the national average, the district's pass rate rose from 45 to 47 percent.
"If our percentage had dropped, that would be a red flag," she said. But, she continued, "Am I happy with the rates? No. Not at all."
Janssen said district officials are looking at ways to expand classes that better prepare students for the rigors of AP and ways to beef up training for AP teachers.
The same things are underway in Hillsborough, Elia said. And she believes they will lead to steady gains in pass rates.
Hillsborough students took 26,523 AP tests last year, more than twice as many as they did in 2004, when their passage rate stood at 49 percent. Elia said she wants to see pass rates above 50 percent, but doesn't know how long that will take.
In the meantime, she said, the raw numbers show far more students are passing AP tests than just a few years ago.
"Am I happy all the time about AP scores? No," she said. "But I will not reduce (success) to a single test on a single day."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.