State leads nation in intrepid scholars

A bigger share of Florida's high school seniors take college-level AP tests than in any other state.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2007

Florida led the country last year in the percentage of high school seniors taking Advanced Placement exams, which are considered a good predictor of future success in college, according to a national report issued Tuesday.

More than one in three Florida seniors took at least one of the tests, up from less than one in four in 2000.

Florida placed seventh in the percentage of seniors that passed the tests, which accompany tough, college-caliber classes. Almost 54 percent of the Florida students who took an exam scored at least one passing grade.

Nationally, 24.2 percent of seniors took an exam. Of them, almost 61 percent scored a passing grade.

"These numbers show us that Florida's students are ready and eager for tougher course work that prepares them for the future," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a written statement.

Advanced Placement classes are offered to high school students in English, history, biology and a wide range of other subjects. Top-notch students have been grinding through them for years, but former Gov. Jeb Bush made it a priority during his first term to include more poor, minority and middle-of-the-road students in the test-taking pool.

To some extent, Tuesday's report from the College Board, which administers the AP program, rebuts critics who said the Bush administration focused too much on minimal competence through the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Florida continues to be one of the top five states in expanding AP opportunities.

"All the indicators are moving in the right direction," said Education Commissioner John Winn.

College Board president Gaston Caperton credited a seven-year partnership program with Florida that has helped schools better identify which students are ready for AP classes and better prepares teachers to teach them. Winn said the program costs about $6-million annually, a drop-in-the-bucket in the state's $30-billion-plus education budget.

"It can be done," said Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia. "It's a matter of belief. It's a matter of high expectations. It's a matter of investment."

Tuesday's report credited Florida for expanding minority access to AP classes, but the results were mixed.

Last year, Hispanic students made up 24.2 percent of all AP test takers in Florida, outpacing the 20.7 percent of Hispanics in the overall student population. But big gaps remain for black students, who make up 19.7 percent of the student population in Florida but only 11 percent of AP test takers.

On the plus side, Winn noted Florida had the biggest increase nationally in the total number of black students taking AP tests, from 7,176 in 2005 to 8,788 last year. And since 2001, the number of black students passing an AP exam in Florida has more than doubled, from 1,655 to 3,326.

District-by-district figures were not available from the College Board or the Department of Education on Tuesday. But area districts report growing numbers of AP test takers.

In Pinellas, 3,181 students took an AP test last year, up 27 percent since 2002.

One of the biggest gainers: Clearwater High School.

Students there took 408 AP exams last year, up from 309 in 2005 - a 32 percent increase. The school offers eight AP classes and is adding three next year, including a human geography course for ninth-graders.

"We're pushing them," said principal Keith Mastorides.

More growth is expected. Pinellas is using a $1.5-million federal grant to get more students on the AP track at four St. Petersburg high schools and seven middle schools that feed them. Right now, 470 students are taking a special course designed to prepare them for AP-quality work, and 300 to 400 are expected next year.

At Durant High School in Plant City, the number of AP test takers has doubled in three years, thanks in part to aggressive recruitment in middle schools. Some students who are approached after being identified as AP-ready are jittery at first, said principal Pam Bowden.

"Some of them say, "I better just try one class instead of two or three,' " she said. "But if they do that and do well, they build their confidence" and take more the next year.

To see the College Board report, go to www.collegeboard.com/appress.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

Advanced Placement

Percentage of seniors taking AP exams

1. Florida 36.4%

2. New York 35.4%

3. Maryland 33.5%

4. Virginia 32.9%

5. North Carolina 31.7%

Percentage of seniors passing an AP exam

1. New York 22.7%

2. Maryland 22.0%

3. Utah 20.8%

4. Virginia 20.7%

5. California 20.1%

6. Massachusetts 19.8%

7. Florida 19.6%