TAMPA — In dozens of Advanced Placement classes in Hillsborough County, students passing the standardized AP tests are the exception to the rule.
About 30 percent of the 600 or so AP teachers in Hillsborough had fewer than 20 percent of their students pass the tests, which usually cost districts $86 a pop, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of district data.
In some classes, not a single student passed.
"You want kids to be motivated to pass the test? Make them pay for the test," said Michael Depue, an AP European history teacher at Robinson High.
In May, 25 of Depue's students took the AP European history test, which like other AP tests is scored on a 1-5 scale, with 3 considered passing. One scored a 3, one scored a 2. The rest scored a 1.
"Senioritis is a terrible, terrible disease," Depue said. "Some kids take four AP courses (at one time), but put all their eggs into two of them."
AP results in Florida have come under growing scrutiny because of aggressive efforts to put thousands of "average" students into college-caliber AP classes. Supporters say those students become better prepared for college by taking AP courses, and that all students will benefit from a culture of higher expectations. Critics, though, fear the new wave of AP kids is stretching teachers too far and dumbing down classes for the academic stars that once had AP to themselves.
Hillsborough is ground zero. It has pushed AP participation as much as any district in the country. And while more of its students are passing AP tests, its pass rates have fallen (this year the rate ticked back up from 36 to 38 percent) and many of its classrooms struggle to produce even a handful of passers.
Eighty-five Hillsborough AP teachers had fewer than 1 in 10 of their students pass this year.
Twenty-one had none pass (though 11 had six or fewer students).
At Hillsborough High, 12 teachers had less than 10 percent pass. One, an AP U.S. history teacher, had 77 students take the test, with two scoring 2 and 75 scoring 1.
Hillsborough High principal William Orr would not comment about the low numbers, saying "it's too complicated an issue" before hanging up the phone.
It is complicated.
It is hard to tell from low test scores alone whether the shortcoming lies with the teacher, the students, a combination of both or other factors. Some AP subject tests are harder than others. Some AP courses are filled with younger students. Even within the same school, different calibers of students may be steered to different AP classes.
At Chamberlain High, one teacher had all 14 of her AP European history students pass the test. But with her AP world history class — typically taken by sophomores — 38 of 93 passed, a pass rate of 41 percent. (The districtwide pass rate for that subject was 28 percent.)
The Times attempted to contact more than two dozen teachers with low pass rates. Three returned e-mails, and only one — Depue at Robinson High — offered to comment.
The head coach for Robinson's football team, Depue also teaches AP human geography, which has become an AP gateway class for many high school freshmen. Ten of the 58 students in that course passed, including five who earned 4 and one who earned a 5.
"There are some who don't belong in there obviously," Depue said, putting the number in his human geography class at about a third. But "it takes an act of Congress to get a kid out of an AP class. The administration wants to keep them in."
Then again, Depue and others say, students still get something valuable from an AP class even if they fall short on the test.
"You have to look at each individual student … and look at the gains over the course of a year," said Greg Basham, an assistant principal at Blake High. "Maybe getting a 2 or a 3 was a huge gain for them."
Many students who appear to do poorly on AP tests are new to AP, Basham said. That exposure should translate into better performance down the road, he said.
At Blake, five teachers had pass rates under 10 percent this year. But the school also pulled off a trifecta: an increase in the number of students taking AP tests (910 to 946), the number passing (235 to 286) and the percentage passing (26 to 30).
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.