Around Tampa Bay, more high school students than ever are taking college-caliber advanced placement tests.
At the same time, they're failing 60 percent of them.
Given a national campaign to funnel more "average" students into rigorous AP classes, do the numbers signal progress for high school reform? Or are they signs of a too-aggressive push with students andteachers who can't cut it?
In Hillsborough County - where students passed 2,000 more exams this year than last - officials say the numbers are a positive sign.
"That's an indicator that we were missing 2,000 kids who had the ability to pass an AP course," said Hillsborough chief information officer David Steele.
Students in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties collectively took almost 39,000 AP exams in 2009 - up 8,185 from the year before, according to preliminary results obtained by the St. Petersburg Times. More than 15,000 of those tests received a score of 3 or higher on the test's 1-5 scale, which is enough to earn academic credit at many colleges.
That's 3,284 more passed tests than the year before.
But it also translates into a pass rate of 40 percent. The national pass rate is 57 percent.
Even if students don't pass AP tests, supporters say, taking AP courses makes them far better prepared for college and the workplace than even honors classes would.
Critics, including many teachers, worry about the potential for weakening curriculum, burning out teachers and shortchanging higher-performing students.
The passage rates give them pause.
Florida's statewide pass rate peaked at 56 percent in 2000. It came in at 43 percent this year.
Meanwhile, the pass rate in Hillsborough, which is pushing AP classes as much as any district in the country, dropped from 38 to 36 percent this year, while the rates in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando improved.
"More teachers are concerned about an open-doors policy than are eager to embrace it," the Fordham Institute, a think tank, wrote in the spring after surveying 1,000 AP teachers nationwide. "That's not necessarily elitist. Conscientious educators typically want to ensure that students are up to the classroom challenge and able to overcome rather than feel beaten down by it."
The latest AP results were released to schools in late summer by the College Board, the private, nonprofit group that oversees the AP program. Final results, expected in February, are not likely to be much different.
Around Tampa Bay, 31 of 57 high schools showed increases in their pass rates this year, while 24 showed declines, and two stayed flat.
On the other hand, 52 showed increases in the raw numbers of passed tests.
At Gulf High in New Port Richey, the number climbed from 111 to 192. At Clearwater High, it increased from 118 to 199.
The school is "stretching our kids as far as they can go," said Clearwater High principal Keith Mastorides.
At Durant High in Plant City, students took a record-high 982 AP tests and passed a record-high 408.
One Durant student signed up for three AP classes this past fall, but within weeks wanted out of two of them. Assistant principal Claire Mawhinney told her no.
A rumor had it the girl got back at Mawhinney by raising the most money to have her "slimed" for charity on local TV. But she also stayed in all three classes - and ended up passing all three AP exams.
"She's a symbol of students being pushed ... until they increase their confidence to work at that level," Mawhinney said.
Florida is a national leader in putting more kids into AP courses and shows no signs of easing up.
Florida students took 66,000 AP tests in 2000. They took 234,000 this year. Even with the lower pass rate, they passed nearly three times as many tests this year than in 2000.
Beginning this year, both AP participation and pass rates will be factored in to the school grades for high schools, which previously had been based on Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test scores alone.
Among area districts, Pinellas has taken the most conservative approach to beefing up AP rolls.
Its students took 14 percent more tests this year, compared with 29 percent in Pasco and 31 percent in Hillsborough. Its pass rate rose 2 points to 47 percent.
"We have not watered down the curriculum or instruction in our AP programs," said Bill Lawrence, who oversees AP in Pinellas. "And the scores bear that out."
Across the bay, principals say their more aggressive approach is paying off.
At East Bay High in Hillsborough, the pass rate fell from 31 to 28 percent this year. But the number of passed tests rose from 126 to 195.
More students are taking AP, said principal Sharon Morris, because "they're seeing their friends being successful."
Times researcher Connie Humburg and staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tony Marrero contributed. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.
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2009 AP results by district
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