For years, the education reformers who preach the virtues of more kids in Advanced Placement classes have repeated two arguments: AP shouldn't be limited to brainiacs anymore. And "average" kids will benefit from those classes whether they pass the tough-as-heck AP tests or not.
Despite growing scrutiny over all things AP, Tampa Bay parents tend to agree.
Sixty-six percent of them said AP classes should be open to any student, while 28 percent said they should be open to only the most advanced, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll of Tampa Bay area parents with children in high school.
Meanwhile, 78 percent said AP classes were still worthwhile even if their child did not pass the AP exam.
"I'm very big into equal opportunities for everybody," said Jim Gibson, a retired computer technician in Pinellas County whose daughter is a sophomore at Dixie Hollins High. "If they have the class going on anyway, why not give them a shot? Give them a challenge."
The overall survey included 702 parents, but the first AP question, about who should be allowed in, was limited to the 353 who had children in high school. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The question about the value of the class even without a passing exam grade was limited to the 196 with children in AP classes. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.
For a decade, Florida has been a national leader in putting more students in AP in the hopes of getting them better prepared for college. Beginning this year, AP is a variable in the state's new grading formula for high schools.
But as participation rates have skyrocketed, passage rates on AP tests have fallen. Meanwhile, there are persistent complaints about unprepared students bogging down AP classes, frustrating both teachers and "traditional" AP students in the process.
"There's kids in there that don't need to be in there," said Kathy Custode, whose daughter takes AP classes at Northeast High in St. Petersburg. "I know how difficult it is when the teacher has students in the class that are not up to that level, and she has to stop" to help them catch up.
Sometimes when her daughter asks her AP teacher a question, the other students say, "Why are you asking that?" Custode said. "They want to be done" with the discussion.
Other parents, though, say AP classes are making students dig deeper.
Allyson Dechent said her son, a senior at Wesley Chapel High, decided on his own to take AP classes for the first time this year. He's taking two, she said. It's tough.
"But he's doing it," she said. "He's saying, 'I'm going to keep going.' ''
Dechent said her son is considering becoming an engineer. She said he'll benefit from the AP classes even if he doesn't score high enough on the AP tests to earn college credit.
"He still has learned more than he did in a regular classroom," she said. "They go in depth a lot more."
In Hillsborough — which has arguably pushed AP more than any district in the nation — Polly Parnell said her daughter took AP World History as a sophomore at Freedom High.
School officials encouraged her to do so when she registered for classes. She didn't pass the exam.
But the next year, she took three AP classes and passed all three exams. Now she's taking three more AP classes as a senior.
"She was clueless to begin with," Parnell said. But the first AP class "prepared her for what it was going to take."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.