The St. Petersburg Times' recent focus on Advanced Placement courses in Tampa Bay area schools has raised some timely questions. However, I believe you might reach a different conclusion if you had additional perspective.
First, let me send a message to Hillsborough County teachers and parents. We support teachers who take on the challenge of teaching Advanced Placement courses to students who are not the academic elites. I do not judge teachers solely by their AP passing rate, and I would caution parents not to do so.
Allow me to tell a quick story.
At one of our high schools, we have a teacher who has taught Advanced Placement courses for 18 years. Years ago, her passing rate was in the 75 percent range, when AP courses were filled almost exclusively with the brightest college-bound students. In recent years, that same teacher has seen her passing rate decrease to the 30 percent range. She no longer teaches just the highest achieving, college-bound students. She has a much more diverse group of students.
To assume that this veteran teacher was a better teacher 18 years ago because she had a better passing rate is to misunderstand what is happening in her classroom and in classrooms across Hillsborough County. She is challenging more students and reaching more students. She is changing the course of students' lives and helping to close the achievement gap. I would dare say that she is a better teacher today than yesterday.
The results of our efforts are not always found in AP passing rates. Many students who don't pass the AP exam do well in the class, and they are better for having been exposed to the higher level coursework. Research that has been shared with the Times shows that students benefit from participating in AP classes, even if they don't pass the exam. They are better prepared for getting into college and succeeding when they get there. College entrance officials will tell you that when they look at a student transcript they want to know if the student took the most challenging courses available in high school.
In Hillsborough County, our focus on AP participation is an important part of a bigger picture. We offer extensive training to teachers, including our AP Summer Institute. We also have innovative programs (EXCELerator, Springboard, AVID) designed to reach down into middle school to better prepare students for the most rigorous coursework.
Have you wondered why our graduation rate in Hillsborough County is the best in the Tampa Bay area and one of the best in the state? Have you wondered why we have more National Merit Scholars and National Achievement Scholars than other school districts? It is no coincidence that we have a greater number and percentage of students taking AP courses. Many of the newcomers to AP classes are minorities, low-income students and/or students who will be the first in their family to attend college. We are pushing our students to challenge themselves, and we're getting results.
We are serious about closing the achievement gap and about college and career readiness. We are determined to reach out to students who at one time would have been written off as "marginal." We won't sit back and allow students to develop "senioritis" and take the easiest courses. We are committed to supporting teachers who are willing to take a chance on a student.
To focus exclusively on AP pass rates does a disservice to teachers and students and misses the big picture.
MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County schools.