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Are tough Advanced Placement classes worth it for Florida high school students?

More Florida students than ever are taking tough college-level classes in high school.

Over the past decade, Florida has invested nearly $650 million in Advanced Placement programs and incentives like teacher bonuses. But with four in 10 students passing the AP exam in 2012, is it worth it?

It depends on how you measure the results:

•  Enrollment is way up. Over the past decade, the number of students taking AP exams has nearly tripled.

•  More minority students are taking the classes. Broward and Miami-Dade have gotten top honors in the country for Hispanic and black students’ participation and performance on AP.

•  Passing rates have slipped statewide. Statewide, 45 percent of test-takers pass the AP exam. At some South Florida schools, the passing rates are 10 percent or less.

•  The classes have become crowded. In 2011, the state Legislature exempted AP from class size rules.

In 2012, nearly a third of all 10th- through 12th-graders took an AP test, according to Department of Education records. The first big increase in AP enrollment came after the state partnered with the College Board, under former Gov. Jeb Bush. The number of AP test-takers jumped by 25,000 students, or nearly 20 percent, in 2010 when state administrators included AP in the school grade formula for high schools.

Last school year, the state spent more than $70 million in incentives for AP classes. That’s about $500 for every passing score, slightly less than the cost — about $600 — for three credit hours at Florida International University.

Florida and the College Board have a close partnership, started under Bush. The state pays exam fees for the College Board tests. Teachers get bonuses if students pass. The state’s contract with the College Board, for nearly $4 million in 2011 and $1.6 million through September 2012, includes workshops for counselors, administrator scholarships to a summer AP program, course audits and other training.


The college-level program used to be known as a VIP program for elite students. Now it’s more about open access.

Consider Miami Jackson Senior High, a long-struggling school that earned its first A from the state in 2011.

Julian Cazañas, the former principal who now works in adult education, said most of the AP students at Miami Jackson will pass the high school class, but not the AP exam, which is rigorous and scored by outside graders.

While Miami Jackson students taking AP exams grew over the past decade, from 83 to 135 students, 14 percent of them passed their AP exam in 2012.

“Participation is way up, but performance isn’t necessarily there. The game is too new. The exposure is too new. I think you’ll get a balance after students get two or three years of exposure,” Cazañas said.

He compared it to a student going to an opera for the first time and walking out with nothing to say. “Maybe after two or three times of seeing that opera, maybe that child can say something.”

Other educators and students agree AP has benefits beyond getting college credit for free. The curriculum exposes them to more information. Students generally have to write more and under tight deadlines. The format is supposed to spur critical thinking, independent study and confidence.

BriAna Hartfield said her AP environmental science course was one of the toughest science classes at Miami Jackson. “You’re more on your own. You take the textbook home, and you have to read. If you don’t, you’re lost,” she said. She passed the exam with a 3 and now attends the University of Miami.

Others who’ve seen packed AP classes around the country say widespread enrollment can cheat both high- and low-performing kids.

“I think it’s a lose-lose for everybody except the reputation of the school,” said Peter Gwynn, an education blogger at and former Washington, D.C., teacher fired under the evaluation system left behind by former chancellor Michelle Rhee. At his former school in Washington, D.C., there were no regular or honors English classes, just AP.

At Dillard High, which had one of the lowest passing rates in Broward in 2012, Principal Cassandra Robinson wants to see students take non-AP versions of certain subjects, like world history, before diving into the more difficult AP sections. She encourages students to take their first AP class in an area they’re interested in. “In general, many students excel in music and art because that’s what they do in their free time,” Robinson said.

Research shows that exposing students to more rigorous courses benefits them academically — both in high school and in college, she said.

Still, in instances where a student bombs an AP course, and in the process lowers his or her GPA, Robinson said she worries about that student becoming less attractive to college admissions officers. “I really have mixed feelings about that,” she said.

Stephanie King, a retired Miami-Dade teacher, thinks of AP as “training steps” for college: “The first year they got a 1, the second year they got a 2, the third year they went to college and were able to get passing grades in college.”

The problem, King said, came in 2010 when AP and other “accelerated classes” were added to the state’s formula to calculate high school letter grades. Some schools, like Dillard in Broward and North Miami Beach in Dade, put more kids into AP courses who weren’t prepared — and many teachers weren’t ready, either.

At Miami Senior High, the AP coordinator and chemistry teacher Erick Hueck, said they have tried to build the program at a deliberate pace and with extra support. That means tutoring, test prep guides, parent seminars, even signature AP survival T-shirts for motivation.

“It’s something I believe heartily. We need to push the kids but support them when you push them. Otherwise, it’s not going to work,” Hueck said.


The growth in AP classes goes back to 1999, when then-Gov. Bush met with the College Board in Tallahassee. Bush wanted more kids to move into college, regardless of their home ZIP code, recalled Jenny Oren Krugman, a Miami-Dade teacher and College Board trustee who attended the meeting.

Gaston Caperton, head of the College Board, offered to help. Negotiations were led by John Winn, who was then working in the Florida DOE and later became education commissioner.

Here is how it works:

•  Florida would pay the AP exam fees — $87 each. It is one of three states to pick up the entire tab for the exam.

•  For every student who gets a passing score, teachers receive $50. In schools that are rated D or F, teachers can get an extra $500 for one student who passes. There is a $2,000 cap on teacher bonuses. No other state gives out such monetary rewards for AP.

•  When calculating state-issued letter grades, Florida awards points for AP and other accelerated coursework. Higher letter grades mean more money and prestige for schools.

•  Public colleges in Florida guarantee the same credit to students successful in AP. Most states don’t have a statewide policy.

•  Florida Virtual School offers more AP courses than other online schools.

As a result, the number of students in AP courses — which cover more than 30 subjects — has nearly tripled over the past decade.

Diversity among students has grown, something many say is a strength of Florida’s program. Dade and Broward got the No. 1 and 3 spots in the country for Hispanic students’ AP work in 2011. For black students, Broward ranked No. 2, Dade seventh.

Trevor Packer, who heads the AP program at the College Board, said Florida has the “most equitable” representation of minority students in AP.

In 2011, nearly 25 percent of graduating seniors in Florida were Hispanic, and slightly more than 25 percent of successful AP students were Hispanic the same year, according to the College Board.

“It’s a really a remarkable journey,” he said.


Some South Florida schools can boast average scores that beat national averages, like Palmetto Senior High with 64 percent of test-takers passing the exam and Cypress Bay High in Weston with 88 percent.

But success is uneven. At Miami Norland, about 3 percent of test-takers passed in 2012. At Dillard High, one in 10.

Contributing to the higher enrollment: More sophomores and freshmen — even middle schoolers — are taking the college-level classes and exams. So at Coral Reef, students, from freshmen to seniors, pack classrooms on Saturdays in the spring for exam prep. There aren’t enough desks, and some kids sit on the floor. To prepare, some teachers hold Jeopardy-style games. Others drill questions. Some cram notes on white boards in tiny, precise print.

Last year, then freshmen Kshitij Kulkarni and Joselyn Gonzalez, took the AP exam in human geography. Four years out from college, do they really care about getting college credit?

The answer: a resounding yes.

“I actually wanted to take it because it would give me college credit and give me more experience in AP classes,” Kshitij said.

Joselyn wanted a 5 — the top score — because it looks better on college applications and means “you actually understand the subject.” “If you don’t [pass], you’re wasting your time,” she said.

AP was designed for high school juniors and seniors. So while the College Board remains neutral on enrolling 10th-graders, the group generally discourages freshmen from participating.

“The ninth-grade students have not developed the writing skills and other skills that are essential to taking a college course,” Packer said. “It’s like speeding college up by four years rather than one or two years. We would prefer they would fund and focus efforts on the foundational skills that would prepare them for college-level course later on.”

Adrian Alvarez took AP classes at Miami Killian, but said the work he encountered afterward at the University of Miami was a “shock.”

The classes that best prepared him focused more on final tests and essays, rather than homework assignments. In some AP classes, students could boost their grade with homework, which gave “somewhat an inflated grade, making it seem that they were more well prepared for college than they actually were,” Alvarez, 21, said.

Even with AP classes in English literature and biology, Alvarez struggled his first semester in those subjects. He ended up dropping biology. On his first college essay, the professor wrote the directions to UM’s writing center.

“I felt insulted somewhat,” Alvarez recalled. It motivated him to prove he was a good writer. Afterward, he never got less than an A-minus on essays. “You learn more when you fail than when you succeed,” he added.

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report. This article also includes comments from members of The Miami Herald’s Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network or to join, visit