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Advanced Placement classes spark success, criticism

November 11, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For 16-year-old Hussain Khalil, Advanced Placement courses mean top teachers who are “really passionate” about their subjects and classmates with like-minded attitudes about school.

“They’re very smart. They’re very committed. They’re committed to do the work,” said the 11th grader at Winter Park High School. And, he added, “There’s definitely a lot of work.”

But that work in his AP calculus, computer science and English literature classes seems worthwhile, Hussain said, for the academic challenge and the chance to earn college credit if he earns passing scores on the national AP exams.

That’s also the view of Orange County school leaders, who have pushed to expand AP offerings in the school district’s 20 traditional high schools. The classes are meant to mimic introductory college courses and are offered in 38 subjects, from art history to chemistry to U.S. history.

But Orange’s AP effort, mirrored in districts across Central Florida and state, has rankled some educators and parents, who think too many students are enrolled in AP courses they don’t really want to take, then left to deal with too much homework and stress.

“It was just overwhelming him,” said Robin Pappas, of her now-12th grader’s first AP class as a freshman at Apopka High School. “He would have two to three hours of homework every night with just that class.”

When Pappas spoke to a school counselor, she was told she couldn’t get him switched to another class, so her son stuck it out. He has continued to take AP classes, and Pappas said she’s pleased he’s had some “amazing teachers.”

But when her daughter started at Apopka High in August and was enrolled in an AP class she didn’t request, the family quickly insisted she be moved out of the class.

“I would love if they would at least listen to parents,” Pappas said.

Orange’s AP push is part of a Florida initiative that began in 2000 with a partnership with the College Board, which runs the AP program. Florida started urging its public high schools to open up AP classes, once reserved for a select few, to more students. For reasons of equity and fairness, they wanted many more teenagers given a chance to prove themselves in these rigorous classes.

The partnership worked, with the number of AP exams taken in the state swelling from fewer than 63,000 in 1998 to nearly 400,000 this year.

The increase in AP exam taking can be seen across Central Florida. In Lake County, the region’s smallest school district, the number of AP exams taken has jumped by more than 1,400 since 2014.

“We’ve opened the door,” said Seminole County Superintendent Walt Griffin.

Once kept small and exclusive, AP classes aren’t forced on anyone but now are strongly encouraged, with counselors telling parents, Griffin said, “Your child is very capable, let them try it.”

The state propelled its AP increase, in part, by paying the AP exam fees — now $94 a test — that would otherwise fall to students’ families, by offering teachers bonuses when their students pass AP exams and by making success on AP exams a factor in its A-to-F grading formula for high schools.

Florida last year was ranked fourth in the nation for AP success, with nearly 31 percent of its high school graduates earning at least one passing AP score.

In the annual “state of the schools” speech in September, Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said the Orange school district was first in Florida for growth in AP exam taking. She also noted that last year more Orange students (33 percent) graduated with at least one passing AP score than did students in top-performing Massachusetts (32 percent).

“Let me brag,” Jenkins said. “That number is higher than the highest performing state in the country,” she said. “That’s Orange County Public Schools.”

District administrators said they consider individual students’ academic needs but also think many benefit from AP’s taste of college-level work. “The district believes all students have potential when and if they are academically challenged,” it said in an emailed statement.

But AP detractors note the failure rates on the exams are often high, which in their view means students are unprepared or advised to take too many AP courses.

As in years past, the passing rates on AP exams in Central Florida, and across the state, in 2018 varied widely by high school and by subject. At Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, for example, more than half the students passed AP biology but just a third passed the AP English literature exam. The school-wide passing rates in Central Florida ranged from a high of 73 percent at Hagerty High School in Seminole to a low of 8 percent at Jones High School in Orlando.

Across Florida, students earned passing scores — a 3 or better on the five-level scoring system — on about 53 percent of the exams they took.

Matthew Fitzpatrick, an assistant director in the school district’s career and technical program, ran for chair of the Orange County School Board this summer, campaigning in part on the issue of AP classes. Fitzpatrick lost the race but his campaign messages struck a chord with his Facebook posts on the topic prompting lots of comments from sympathetic teachers and parents.

He started worrying about AP policies when his daughter was a senior at Apopka High. She wanted to take three AP classes — but counselors scheduled her for five, and he had to press hard to get her out of the two she didn’t want.

“If we are just forcing students in it, there’s a lot of collateral damage that happens,” he said.

He thinks the district’s AP push means teachers must teach AP courses even if they aren’t well versed in the subject, with their tasks made more difficult because some students are pressured to enroll.

“Half the class wants to be there; half the class doesn’t want to be there,” Fitzpatrick added. “Now the teacher is trying to drag kids along,” he said, to the detriment of those students “who want to soar.”

Michael Daniels, whose two children attend Freedom High School in south Orange, unsuccessfully ran for school board with a campaign platform that made AP classes an issue.

His message: Dual enrollment classes are better than AP for students looking to earn college credit and reduce college expenses. His frustration: “If you aren’t very aggressive, they will stuff them into an AP class.”

Students who pass dual enrollment classes earn the credit, with no need to take a national exam. Credit in AP classes is harder to come by since a passing exam score, or a 3, is required on top of the course work, noted Daniels, director of Nova Southeastern University’s Orlando campus.

And sometimes that is not enough. In a number of subjects the University of Florida, for example, won’t give course credit unless a student earned at least a 4 on the AP exam.

For AP supporters, however, the classes are valuable, no matter how students do on the exams.

Daniel Farmer, who teaches AP English classes at Winter Park, said the courses help students learn to read more quickly, take good notes, write well and “really just be prepared for that college-level experience.”

He sometimes hears from parents who worry about the workload or say “my kid needs to have fun in high school.” And he has occasionally approved a student dropping out.

“There’s a balance,” Farmer said. ” If we can push them, and we can support them, that’s probably what we should do.”

Anya Legaspi, 16, a Winter Park senior, said she’ll graduate with 15 AP classes on her transcript, and she’s happy about every one, even AP physics 1, the class in which she didn’t pass the AP exam last year.

“I learned a lot,” she said.

Her advice to other students: “If you can handle it, do it.”

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Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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