First in a series
School principals and administrators in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — and throughout Florida — boast about the rising number of high school students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement classes. Here's their dirty little secret: The passing rates on the AP exam are often pathetic. It is a scandalous situation that fails students, misleads parents and wastes public money.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis of AP test scores shows wide disparities in passing rates from teacher to teacher in Pinellas and Hillsborough. In too many cases, the passing rates are an embarrassment and suggest the teacher has failed to prepare the students.
Florida students overall passed a paltry 42.9 percent of AP exams in 2009 compared to 57 percent nationwide. Pinellas and Hernando counties were slightly better at 47 percent, and Pasco County had a 48 percent passing rate. Hillsborough's passing rate was a dismal 36 percent, but its students took three times the number of AP tests that Pinellas students took. Yet even those discouraging districtwide averages are deceptively high.
The AP exam passing rates for individual teachers can be even lower. At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, an F-rated school, not a single one of 35 students who took AP human geography over two years passed the exam. But schools with stronger academic reputations are also failing their AP students. St. Petersburg High, often ranked among the nation's top high schools, has AP passing rates for specific teachers as low as 8.6 percent, 5.3 percent and 0 percent. Imagine how that kind of job performance would be evaluated in the private sector.
The excuses from teachers and principals are predictable. Some point to differences in school populations, but there are dismal AP passing rates for individual teachers in otherwise high-performing schools. Others say teachers new to the rigors of AP classes need time to grow into their jobs. But there are plenty of examples of veteran AP teachers who have low passing rates year after year. The students cannot wait for the teacher to get better to have a shot at passing the test and earning college credit.
There is some merit to the argument that passing rates are low because too many unprepared students are being steered into AP classes. Although Florida's rules are about to change, the state and national school ratings have placed too much weight on how many students are taking AP classes and ignored how many students are passing the final exams. But that does not explain wide variances in passing rates from teacher to teacher, even within the same school.
There are serious cracks in this facade of academic rigor, and students and teachers are not the only ones at fault. District superintendents and school principals are aware of these poor AP test performances, and they should be held accountable for failing to address the situation. They need to ensure new AP teachers are properly trained and remove veteran teachers whose test passing rates are consistently low.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for failure, and students are being shortchanged by AP teachers who are not preparing them for success.