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Teachers, students suffer growing pains in AP classes

The Pinellas school district is trying to improve its Advanced Placement high school classes by better training teachers and better preparing students. But the latest test results show it still has a ways to go.

About a quarter of the 200-plus AP teachers in Pinellas last school year had fewer than 20 percent of their students pass the standardized AP exams that are tied to the courses, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of district data.

Twelve teachers had not a single student pass.

"I would think that's a red flag," said Bill Lawrence, the district's director of advanced studies. "Certainly it would cause the instructional leader to do some investigation."

Pinpointing the problem, though, can be tough if you're trying to judge by pass rates alone.

Is it the teacher? The students? Both?

As Pinellas and other districts throughout Florida rapidly expand their college-caliber AP programs, they're creating legions of new AP teachers. Research shows it usually takes a few years for those teachers to reach the top of their game. At the same time, new and veteran AP teachers alike are being challenged by the growing ranks of "average" students who are being recruited into AP in an effort to get them college ready.

Those changes are most apparent in schools with lots of struggling kids, where AP participation is growing fast.

Of the 61 teachers with pass rates below 20 percent, 11 are at Boca Ciega High, 10 are at Dixie Hollins High.

Four AP teachers at Boca Ciega had no students pass. (AP tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, and a 3 or above is often referred to as passing, and is the level at which many colleges give students credit for the course.)

On the flip side, most of the 42 AP teachers with pass rates above 70 percent (the national average last year was 55.7 percent) were in schools with more affluence or marquee academic programs or both. Ten were at Palm Harbor University High. Seven each were at East Lake High and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High.

"We have to build in more support (for teachers and students). There's no question about that," said Michael Vigue, who became Boca Ciega's principal this week.

Lawrence said at least two of the 12 teachers with no students passing are no longer teaching AP courses. The Times tried to reach three of the 12, but they did not return calls or e-mails.

The Times asked the district for a breakdown of the letter grades earned by students in one of the classes in which not a single one of the students — in this case, 24 of them — scored beyond a 1 on the AP test. District records show two-thirds earned A's or B's on their final semester grades. None earned an F.

Meanwhile, Lawrence said that for every AP teacher whose results raise questions, there are others who deserve kudos. One Boca Ciega teacher had 46 percent of her AP human geography students pass the test, nearly double the district rate.

Overall, the number of AP tests taken by Pinellas students rose from 7,686 to 9,828 last year, while the number passed rose from 3,603 to 4,008. The district's pass rate fell from 47 to 41 percent.

At Dixie Hollins, new principal Dan Evans said it's "apples to oranges" to compare Dixie's results to schools with AP programs that were established long ago.

The number of AP classes at Dixie has climbed from five to 15 in just the past two years. The school doubled its AP participation last year, yet still saw its pass rate move from 24 to 26 percent.

"We're willing to live with those growing pains," Evans said.

Garry Scheuer is feeling them. He taught AP environmental science at Dixie last year, and his students had the second-lowest pass rate for that subject in the district. Two of 16 earned a 3. Fourteen earned a 1.

After the Times submitted questions in writing, as Scheuer had requested, he wrote this: "I feel these are questions and issues I and my students, their parents, my supervisors, administrators, and fellow AP teachers are in the process of evaluating and tackling. I feel it would be premature and incorrect to open the discussion to the public."

He continued: "I will say this: I never blame my students for low performance. All of the students that attended my class last year were capable and wonderful people."

At Countryside High, Beth McGovern's students had the district's highest pass rate on the environmental science test, with 17 of 22 earning 3s or above. She said they deserve most of the credit.

Seven dropped out of the class, she noted. And the rest turned out to be a good mix that pushed her and each other.

"Half were excellent students. The other half had really big hearts," said McGovern, who had never taught the class before. "I don't know that I would have that good a pass rate with a different group of kids."

District data shows the same teacher can have widely different results in different subjects.

A Clearwater High teacher had a 22 percent pass rate in AP English language and composition but a 61 percent pass rate in AP English literature and composition. A Dunedin High teacher had a 57 percent pass rate in AP European history but only a 29 percent rate in AP world history.

In the latter case, the results could be skewed downward by the fact that many sophomores take AP world history, and for many of them it's their first AP course, Lawrence said.

Still, he said, some Pinellas schools have had misconceptions about which students to allow in AP courses, something that superintendent Julie Janssen tried to address this spring.

"It is important to stress the expectation for placing students in the most rigorous courses for which they are likely to be successful," she wrote to principals in April. That meant, she continued, not putting students who are not reading at grade level, for example, into honors or AP classes.

"What we've always said is, we must open doors to all students who are capable, and the key word is capable," Lawrence said. "Every one had a different definition of capable."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Teachers, students suffer growing pains in AP classes 10/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 2:28pm]

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