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Monday, March 19, 2007

Advance Placement exams up 218% from a decade ago

Advance Placement exams up 218% from a decade ago
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Leslie Postal
Sentinel Staff Writer

March 19, 2007

In 1985, Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs offered two Advanced Placement classes -- calculus and English literature.

Combined, the classes enrolled maybe 30 students a year. And no wonder. To get in, students needed teacher recommendations, all A's in previous honors courses, high test scores and writing samples.

Today, Lake Brantley offers 30 AP courses -- meant to be the equivalent of introductory college classes -- with more than 930 students enrolled. Getting in now is more about interest and drive than pure academic achievement.

"It has mushroomed," said Sandy Erickson, Lake Brantley's AP coordinator, because the school figured out that "kids that weren't pigeonholed could advance."

A similar shift in philosophy has taken place across the country and Florida. Thanks to a more-open AP enrollment, the number of Florida high-school students taking AP exams jumped 218 percent in the past decade, according to the College Board, the nonprofit group that runs the AP program. Last year, 90,681 Florida students took AP exams.

Once viewed as a place for only top students, AP now is seen as a way to give more teenagers a challenge and better preparation for college. The program began in 1955 as a way to give bright high-school students a chance to get ahead before college. That year, 1,300 students took AP exams nationwide, compared with more than 660,000 last year, the College Board reported.

Florida is now seventh in the nation when it comes to the percentage of graduating seniors who have done well enough on at least one AP exam to be eligible for college credit. According to the College Board, nearly 20 percent of Florida's class of 2006 hit that mark, compared with less than 15 percent nationally.

Increasing popularity

There are 37AP courses offered by the College Board, from chemistry to music theory to world history. For top students in many Central Florida high schools, a schedule full of AP classes has become the norm.

Lizmarie Maldonado, 17, will graduate from Timber Creek High in east Orange County this spring with 10 AP classes on her transcript.

"I need to be ready for college," she said.

Her classmate Patrick Bobek, 17, will graduate with nine. His reason for opting for AP over other classes was simple: "They would have been really, really boring."

On a recent morning, their AP English literature class discussed satire in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and in a painting by British artist William Hogarth.

"You guys are too quick for me today. I need another cup of coffee," said teacher Beth Eskin, who also is the school's AP coordinator.

At the University of Florida, where Lizmarie and Patrick have been accepted, AP classes are now expected from the top students vying for admission to the state's flagship school, which has had to cap freshman enrollment in recent years as it balances budgets with increased demand.

Supply and demand

More than 80 percent of the students who have enrolled at UF in the past two years have taken at least one AP class or an equivalent, said Zina Evans, UF assistant provost and director of admissions.

Even when students do not score well on the exams, AP classes give them a taste of college and help them handle the real thing better, Eskin said.

Graduates often tell her that thanks to those classes, "I knew how to study. I knew how to manage my time," she said.

Some experts question whether AP courses really mimic college ones, particularly in the sciences. Some also fear that opening AP classes to more students heightens the risk that the curriculum will be less challenging. But the College Board says its new course audits will make sure classes with the AP imprint remain top-notch.

There is no argument that the appeal of AP is now widespread in Florida. But that appeal is not spread evenly.

Eleven small North Florida districts do not have any courses, though that is down from 18 that were without seven years ago.

Lake Brantley, with 30 courses, offers more than any other Central Florida school; Olympia High in Orange County is right behind with 29. But two struggling high schools, Evans and Jones in Orlando, offer just nine and five AP courses, respectively.

School administrators say AP enrollment often comes down to supply and demand. The region's smaller high schools, such as 900-student Umatilla High in Lake County, cannot offer as many classes as a 3,000-student school. In some places, interest in AP classes is limited by strong dual-enrollment programs with community colleges, or International Baccalaureate, another challenging program.

But in schools such as Evans and Jones, fewer students tackle the difficult courses because so many are working on basic reading and math skills.

"We can't just throw students in there," said Dianne Lovett, Orange's senior director of advanced studies.

Changing the culture

In Orange, as in other Central Florida districts, middle schools have started programs to prepare more students for the rigorous high-school courses. As part of a College Board partnership Florida started in 2000, schools also scour standardized-test results looking for students with AP potential who might not sign up on their own for classes with lots of reading and homework.

" 'I don't want to work hard my senior year' is not a good excuse," said Cheryl Salerno, assistant principal at Mainland High in Daytona Beach. "We're trying to change that culture."

One of the goals of the College Board partnership is to increase AP enrollment among students who did not traditionally sign up, notably low-income students and minorities.

Florida has made significant strides with Hispanic students, who now take AP courses at a rate higher than the overall percentage of Hispanic students in the state's public schools, according to the College Board. But black enrollment still lags, as it does nationwide.

In Orange County, for example, the 504 black students who took at least one AP class in 2005 represented just a fraction of the more than 13,600 black high-school students that year. But those 504 black students compare with 104 who took AP classes in 1999, district figures show.

"We're knocking down some of the fences," Lovett said.

Leslie Postal can be reached at lpostal@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5273.

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