The ups and downs of Advanced Placement: Roughly half the Florida kids who took the tough exams in 2018 didn’t pass.

By: - February 28, 2019 7:00 am

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In a swath of North Florida school districts, only a handful of high school students, at best, take top-level classes that can be a ticket to college.

Elsewhere, thousands of Florida students take a hefty lineup of the tough Advanced Placement classes and pass the AP exams that can give them college credits and a leg up on getting into top universities.

State education officials have been spreading accolades about Florida’s AP performance, but roughly half the AP exams taken by public school students last May came back with failing scores and wide variations in results from school district to school district.

The scores, provided to the Florida Phoenix through a public records request, raise questions about whether schools are adequately preparing students to take the tough courses and if high schools are providing kids access to a range of AP classes.

Black high school students in Florida, for example, are disproportionately represented when it comes to the AP exams.

They made up 22 percent of Florida’s public high school population last year, according to state enrollment data. But only 11 percent of AP test takers in 9th through 12th grades were black, according to data from the New York-based College Board, which developed the AP program.

Some Florida schools offer very few AP courses, while others have a long list from which to choose – setting up a disparity that can impact student success. At northwest Florida’s Blountstown High School in Calhoun County, principal Debbie Williams said the school offered only one AP class last year, in physics.

She recalled students taking the AP Physics 1 exam, but no one passed, Williams said. (State data provided about AP results did not show information on the AP physics exam but that could be because only a very small number of kids were tested).

Likewise, school districts in Calhoun, Gilchrist, Glades, Gulf, Holmes, Lafayette, Madison, Bradford, Gadsden and Liberty showed no 2017-18 AP exam results.

Scores range from 1 to 5 on the AP exams, and kids need at least a 3 to be considered “passing.” Many colleges, but not all, accept at least a 3 to get college credit, as well as the 4 and 5 scores.

Williams said her high school is small – about 400 students – and there aren’t teachers available to get trained and teach the rigorous AP classes.

And if students don’t pass AP exams, they won’t get college credits when they move on to higher education, potentially losing out on savings in tuition and other expenses, according to Williams.

As a result, some students are more attracted to “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high school kids to take courses at the local community college level while still in high school and get credits for those classes.

“I think we’re going to stick with dual enrollment,” Williams said. “That’s what our families need, more than AP.”

Bradford High School in north central Florida has about 800 students and provided just three AP courses last year, including U.S. history and World History, according to Sherree Alvarez, who oversees school improvement and accountability at the Bradford County School District.  The state data show that no one passed the exams.

The College Board offers more than three dozen AP subjects for students to take. They can often get college credit for each exam if they pass.

But at Bradford High School, some students are reading two or three years below their grade level, Alvarez said, so it’s difficult to try to place those kids in rigorous AP classes that have challenging text and materials.

Also, some students prefer not to take an AP class in fear they won’t get a good grade, she said, including athletes that must keep up their grade point average to play sports. “They don’t want to blow their GPA,” Alvarez said.

The Florida Department of Education earlier this month praised Florida students’ AP efforts, citing data from the College Board related to students in the graduating Class of 2018 who took at least one AP exam during high school.

A press release touted the title, “Florida Continues to Lead the Nation in Advanced Placement Exams,” and noted that, “Compared to the other states, Florida has the highest percentage of graduates who took an AP exam during high school (55.9%).”

“These results are worthy of celebration,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said at the time, “and I congratulate the students whose hard work and dedication is paying off.”

But the state’s focus doesn’t tell the whole story – it’s mostly based on whether graduates took at least one exam – whether they passed it or not — throughout their entire high school career.

It’s more telling to look at statewide data from a single year – the most recent exam results are from May 2018. How did kids fare on the AP exams that school year?

The Florida Phoenix requested and received statewide results across AP subjects from the College Board. And the Florida Department of Education provided its own results for more than 600 individual schools.

First the big picture: In all, 190,304 of Florida’s public school students took 340,785 AP exams in May 2018. Of those exams, 50.47 percent passed with a score of 3,4 and 5. (Adding in Florida’s private school students who took the exams, the passing rate was 52.57 percent).

The national average for public school students is a 57.2 percent passing rate, according to the College Board data.

Over the decades, AP participation has been on the rise in Florida, with about 220,000 students in 2018, counting the private school kids — an increase of about more than 25,000 students from five years ago.

And the College Board has cited the benefits of AP – such as challenging classes and reading materials that prepare kids for college – even if students don’t pass the exams.

For the May 2018 exams, public school students did best in the AP subjects of Spanish Language and Culture, and worse in Latin and the Physics 1 exams.

The state’s AP data for individual schools also revealed wide differences in AP performance.

For example, at Pine View School, a gifted public school in the Sarasota County School District, 83 percent of exams taken garnered passing scores. That’s well above state and national averages.

The school provides more than 30 AP subjects for kids, from macroeconomics to European history, psychology and U.S. government and politics.

On average, students take about 11 AP courses throughout high school, said principal Stephen Covert, and the high-performing students often end up in top state schools, Ivy League universities and military academies such as West Point.

“It is absolutely a magical place,” Covert said about Pine View School.

About two dozen schools also had very high passing rates, though most had a small numbers of exams.

The Phoenix looked closely at schools with a sizeable number of AP exams – at least 1,000 exams — and found that Broward County’s Cypress Bay High School had the highest figure in the state for passing the exams – about 88 percent of the more than 4,000 exams in May 2018. Pine View in Sarasota was second in the state in that group.

Following Cypress Bay and Pine View, the 10 schools with passing rates of at least a 70 percent were in Broward, Alachua, Brevard, Seminole, St. Johns, Collier, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

On the list of schools with at least 1,000 exams, the lowest scores were in Orange, Lake and Miami-Dade.

But many districts had high scores as well as low scores.

In the Orange County School District, one high school had a passing rate of nearly 60 percent on the AP exams, higher than the state average. But two schools in the district had passing rates below 10 percent and at another school, the passing rate was zero.

Many other districts showed the same scenario of up and down scores, from Polk, Pasco and Pinellas to Volusia and Walton.

The Phoenix also calculated the districtwide AP results for May of 2018, encompassing all schools in each county. St. Johns County, followed by Alachua, had the highest results.

The lowest results were in Jefferson and Franklin counties, on top of the counties that didn’t show any results at all, such as Bradford, Gadsden and Liberty and several other districts that likely struggle to provide AP courses and get kids to pass the exams.

When asked whether AP is worth it for struggling students, Sherree Alvarez, of the Bradford school district said, “I think they should either get in an AP or a dual enrollment class. They need to be in at least one higher class in the high school experience that is going to push them.”




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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.