TAMPA — SAT prep in middle school. Summers and breaks devoted to community service. Just when it seemed college resume building couldn't get more intense, high schools across the Tampa Bay area are signing up freshmen for an Advanced Placement course designed to give seniors an early taste of college.
Blame a college admissions race advancing at turbo speed, or credit a statewide push to infuse rigor into high school. It makes little difference to students. Beginning the first day of high school, the pressure is on to load up schedules with college-level AP classes.
But to what end? Many in the college admissions process are starting to question whether expectations once reserved for child prodigies are appropriate for the masses.
"How credible is it that entire cohorts of ninth-graders are doing college-level work?" asks Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
By the numbers, not very.
Sixty percent of the ninth-graders taking AP human geography, the most popular AP course among high school freshmen, failed a final exam given nationally last year. Locally, the numbers are even worse. Only one in four Hillsborough and Pinellas students passed the test.
But schools continue to push ninth-graders to enroll, often saying research proves students benefit from just taking the course. The evidence, however, is not so clear.
Either way, ambitious students feel they must rise to the challenge.
"It's the norm now, setting the bar higher and higher each year," says Tori Quaglia, a 14-year-old taking AP human geography at Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass Ranch High School. "It's kind of a prerequisite for what you're going to get in college."
• • •
Remember Advanced Placement classes from high school? Times have changed, and so has the program that started in the 1950s to serve a handful of bright students bored by the traditional high school curriculum.
In today's college admissions game, an AP course label is the gold standard of student transcripts. It shows colleges that students took the most challenging courses available.
And the more competitive the college, the more AP classes students feel compelled to take.
"Students are not going to get into four-year universities without AP on their transcript," says Eric Bergholm, who oversees the AP program in Hillsborough. "You want your students to be competitive in the admissions process."
But a growing number of the nation's elite prep schools are moving away from AP courses. They say creative, in-depth study can get lost in the laundry list of topics covered by the AP exam.
Some critics worry about eroding quality. Student participation in AP has more than doubled in the past decade. Last year, the College Board, the nonprofit that runs the AP program, ordered its first-ever course audit, requiring teachers to submit syllabi to prove the rigor of their classes.
Florida State University admissions director Janice Finney doesn't doubt that some ninth-graders are ready for AP. But she worries about parents who seem to be priming their children for college as soon as they're born.
"Sometimes I think we may be overdoing it. Let the kids be kids for a little while," she said, adding that she tells students to just relax. "I would not want to be a high school student any longer."
None of this has dampened enthusiasm in Florida, where a new high school grading system is poised to reward AP participation. It weighs into Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia's annual bonus. And state leaders are proud of efforts to enroll more low-income and minority students, who were often excluded in the past.
Frances Haithcock, Florida's K-12 chancellor, concedes that AP isn't for every ninth-grader. But she remains less concerned about pushing children too hard than setting the bar too low. She wants high expectations to trickle down to every grade level.
"Remember," she says, "college starts in kindergarten."
• • •
Just behind the region's newest shopping mall, Wiregrass Ranch High School invites families to "join the stampede!" Beginning in the ninth grade, the school touts a comprehensive AP program that is "preparing students for success at the highest levels."
The textbooks on desks in Paul Vassak's classroom are written at a college level. The atmosphere is anything but.
Yellow and green stars with students' goals are posted on a whiteboard. On a poster, the classroom rules are stated: "Mr. Vassak's Collegiate Point Policy: Be Prompt. Be Prepared. Be Productive. Be Polite."
During a recent lesson, Vassak used a Power Point presentation to review for a midterm exam on the geography of language. Students rattle off descriptions of key terms like ideogram and language families.
The class ends as it does most days, with a game called "Last Man Standing." As students compete to answer course-related trivia, the classroom dissolves into giggles and wails.
"Now is when they're ninth-graders again," Vassak said. "Silly, bubbly people come out."
He does not doubt they have the skills and work ethic to succeed. But he has had to reassure parents at times, especially when children used to receiving straight A's came home with C's or lower on the first test.
Wiregrass principal Ray Bonti tells parents that taking an AP course is like playing 18 holes of golf with Tiger Woods.
"You may not beat Tiger Woods, but what a heck of an experience," he said. "How much would you learn from that time?"
• • •
In Florida education circles, the benefits of AP are akin to gospel. Students who take AP do better in college, even if they fail the AP exam.
The research is much more complicated.
Hillsborough officials, for example, point to a Texas study as evidence that students who took an AP exam were more likely to graduate from college, regardless of their performance on the test.
But its researchers came to a different conclusion. Chrys Dougherty and Lynn Mellor of the National Center for Educational Achievement say that after they accounted for bias factors at the school level, like which students opt to take AP courses and their prior achievements, the advantages of just taking an AP course and exam largely evaporated.
Their research did indicate that both taking and passing an AP exam showed that students were well-prepared for college.
"People are not really looking that hard for evidence," said Dougherty, who believes that more studies are needed. "It's kind of like looking at the tea leaves of the evidence that's not really conclusive evidence and reading it whichever way you like."
Another myth: The AP course being taken by ninth-graders was designed specifically for them.
College Board officials say they intended for high school seniors primarily to enroll. On the year-end test, they see juniors and seniors having more success than younger students.
Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president overseeing AP, cautions that younger students must be properly prepared to succeed in AP. That includes possessing writing and thinking skills that students typically build during their early years of high school.
"There's so many things the students should be experiencing in high school, we don't recommend a rush to AP," he said.
The opposite approach appears to be advancing around the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough has increased enrollment in AP human geography by more than 50 percent in the past year. The course is now offered to 2,500 students, mostly freshmen, at all 25 of its high schools.
Pinellas has expanded the courses to 450 freshmen at seven schools, and Pasco started classes at two high schools this year.
"Parents are pressuring us more and more to provide more college-level opportunities for their students," said Bill Lawrence, director of advanced studies for Pinellas schools. "But we always try and counsel children to think it clearly through. 'Is this something I'm ready for?' "
Even when the answer is yes, teachers may need to help students bridge the gap to high school and college-level studies at the same time.
Jennifer Orjuela didn't know what to expect in her first year teaching AP to freshmen at Tampa's Jefferson High School. She quickly learned that while her ninth-graders could identify the continents on a map, they were clueless on college basics.
"When I said, 'Write a five paragraph essay and make sure you have a clear thesis in your introduction, they were like, 'Th-eee?? Th-eee??' " Orjuela says. "You realize they're 14 and 15. You have to give them the tools to be able to think that way."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.