The Hillsborough County School District's push to open Advanced Placement classes to average students is as strong as anywhere in the country. It is part of the reason the district is gaining a national reputation for reform, from being lauded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to winning the $100 million Gates Foundation grant for innovations in teacher training, pay and classroom performance. But the results are not as flattering as the effort.
The same worrisome problems of wobbly AP progress that have dogged Pinellas are evident in some Hillsborough classrooms. As Times staff writers Ron Matus and Connie Humburg reported Sunday, 85 Hillsborough AP teachers had fewer than 10 percent of their students pass the exams this year. Twenty-one had none pass. That should not be acceptable regardless of how many students are taking the test.
At Hillsborough High, one AP teacher had 77 students take the test, with two scoring 2 and 75 scoring 1. (One is the lowest possible score on a 5-point scale in which a 3 is generally considered passing; it is the minimum score many colleges will accept for credit.) At that same school, a dozen teachers had fewer than 10 percent pass. Principal William Orr would not comment on the scores to the reporter except to say "it's too complicated an issue." He owes the public a better explanation than that for such a sorry performance.
It's not that complicated. Up to a point, it is reasonable to open AP participation more broadly to students who can benefit but were formerly denied the chance. But when nearly no one in a class is passing, it is time to take a hard look at what is going on and to question the benefit both to the student and to the taxpayer who is underwriting the exams at $86 each.
School officials typically mount a two-pronged defense of some terrible results in individual classrooms. First, they argue while opening up AP classes to more average students might lower the passing rates, exposing those students to the rigor of advanced course work will better prepare them for college even if they fail to pass the exam. Second, they contend it is wrong-headed to measure students' success in AP courses solely by their exam results.
One way to clarify the situation is to ensure grades in the classroom reasonably track exam results. A student earning an A in the course should enter the examination room prepared to at least pass the exam — earning a 3 or better.
It stretches credulity to believe a student scoring a 1 — the lowest result possible — has a meaningful grasp of the material. And that same student should have been graded accordingly all along in the classroom, which would have given teacher, student, parent and administrator ample warning that something was wrong either in the instruction, the learning or in the fit between student and the class.
Plant High principal Rob Nelson points out even as his school offered hundreds more AP exams, the pass rate ticked up. That's a laudable result. But then he goes on to cite the benefit to a student who is pushed into an AP course, earns only a low C, scores a 2 on an exam and yet gains from the experience. First, a student applying to college cannot afford many low C's on a transcript. Second, how many students in either Hillsborough or Pinellas earned C's or worse in their AP courses? And, conversely, how many were given much higher grades and still failed to score better than 1 or 2?
Since Hillsborough plans to be a national leader in accountability, it should be able to solve this: Give both teachers and students the tools, preparation and opportunity they need to succeed and then hold them to high standards. Ask questions about low pass rates, and make sure grades earned in the classroom fairly match scores earned on the AP exam. Most students earning A's should at least pass the exam. That is accountability everyone can understand.