In Pinellas County public high schools, more and more students are taking college-difficulty Advanced Placement classes. But success on year-end exams remains elusive.
About four of every 10 AP students districtwide last year passed an AP exam. Overall passing rates were below 50 percent at all but four of the county's 17 high schools. The district's passing rate was 42 percent, up slightly from the 2010-2011 year's 41.7 percent.
Palm Harbor University High enjoyed the district's highest overall passing rate, with 65.8 percent. Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg had the district's lowest rate, with 16.5 percent.
Superintendent Mike Grego said passing the test is important, but there are "multiple variables" affecting what the overall rates mean. Does the passing rate speak to the quality of the teacher? The students in the class? Both?
Even in schools with low passing rates, Grego said he'd rather offer a full slate of Advanced Placement classes and challenge students to do the work.
"I'd rather err on the side of exposing the kids to rigor," he said.
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The College Board, a nonprofit organization, has administered the Advanced Placement program since 1955 and offers 34 college-level classes and exams in subjects including calculus, chemistry, English, French language, U.S. history and music theory.
Last year, more than 2 million students nationwide took 3.7 million exams, according to the College Board.
Florida has pushed school districts to increase enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, even adding AP participation and performance to the state's grading formula for high schools. The effort has been part of a statewide emphasis on preparing students for college.
As a result, Florida ranks sixth in the nation for performance on the college-caliber exams — based on the number of its high school graduates who passed at least one AP exam. Enrollment in the classes has skyrocketed. Each exam costs $89, which is paid for by the state.
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The trade-off is that as the pool of test takers has grown, the overall passing rate has gone down. That rate considers the number of students who took an AP exam at any point during high school and earned a passing score. The state enjoyed a passing rate of about 55 percent about a decade ago; now it's about 45 percent.
Students must get a 3 or above on a five-point scale to pass the test. Many universities offer students college credit based on their test score, though some will only issue credit with a score of 4 or 5. The higher the score, typically the more credit a student can get, which can be a valuable opportunity to skip lower-level college coursework.
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Pinellas County, like the state, has seen a drop in overall passing rates with its jump in AP enrollment.
In the last three years, the district tallied a 35 percent increase, with 6,160 students taking AP classes last year compared with 4,557 in the 2008-09 school year. The passing rate dropped to 41 percent in 2010, compared with 47 percent in 2009. Last year, it improved slightly to 42 percent, according to the school district.
Pinellas high schools with the greatest overall success in Advanced Placement were those with more affluent students, marquee academic programs or both. Palm Harbor University High, St. Petersburg High, Countryside High in Clearwater and East Lake High in Tarpon Springs had overall passing rates above 50 percent.
Passing rates also varied dramatically by subject area. Some AP classes, such as world history and biology, tend to have lower passing rates statewide and nationwide. Others, such as art courses, often have high passing rates. Not all students who take an AP course will take the exam.
At East Lake High, 10 students took the biology course. All but three students passed the exam — a 70 percent passing rate, according to district figures. At St. Petersburg High, 15 students took biology, but only two students passed — a 13.3 percent rate.
Palm Harbor University High, which had 111 students in biology, had a 62.2 percent passing rate, with about 69 students earning passing scores. Countryside didn't offer the class.
District officials don't track how well students perform in their AP classes against how well they do on the AP exams, if taken. Melanie Marquez, a district spokeswoman, said it's possible that individual teachers or schools do look at the results in class versus test performance.
School officials also have made an effort to expand Advanced Placement class offerings at the high schools. That means students have more options. But it also can mean a learning curve as new teachers are trained to teach the courses.
Individual schools are responsible for selecting teachers to teach AP classes — there's no district mandate that the teachers have a certain level of experience — but all AP teachers take regular training, including a weeklong subject specific course in the summer before they first teach an AP class, according to the district. Experienced AP teachers also rotate through the College Board-led training.
"The training aspect is really the key," Grego said.
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Some schools have far more students in AP classes.
Palm Harbor and East Lake have the largest numbers of students taking AP in the district. At Palm Harbor, nearly half the student body took an AP class last year. At Boca Ciega High in Gulfport, which has a 22.2 percent passing rate, less than a third did.
Bayside High in Clearwater, a dropout prevention school, doesn't offer AP classes.
At Dixie Hollins, which has a large population of struggling students, principal Dan Evans said there were just six AP classes offered three year ago. The school now offers 19 AP classes, including Spanish, psychology and macroeconomics. It also is one of three Pinellas schools to offer the prestigious Cambridge program, which offers college-level courses and is similar to the International Baccalaureate program.
The Cambridge program, in its second year, and AP classes are attracting back some students who live in Dixie Hollins' boundary but were choosing to go elsewhere, he said. With regular, honors, AP and Cambridge courses, students can challenge themselves, he said.
If students discover they can't do the work in an advanced class, they can take a step back.
"We think the exposure to the more rigorous curriculum is more important than passing the exam at the end," he said.