Audit to ensure AP courses tough enough

Published April 4, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Ridgewood High School teacher Stan Boles has some homework to do over spring break this week: He's going to make sure his syllabus and course materials are up to snuff.

Not that his students have been unsuccessful during his 15 years teaching Advanced Placement U.S. government at Ridgewood and Pasco high schools. They have, in fact, surpassed the national passing rate just about every year.

It's just that the College Board, which owns the AP brand, wants to ensure every course bearing that label achieves the high standards it requires.

The College Board is conducting its first audit of all AP courses, to determine which ones deserve the stamp of approval. There are more than 110,000 teachers leading AP courses in high schools worldwide, according to the College Board.

"I understand the rationale behind it," Boles said. "They want to make sure we are really setting challenging course work. ... They probably got a wakeup call."

Indeed. The number of students taking AP courses and tests has exploded in the past decade, with Florida near the top of the pack. Nearly 91,000 Florida students took AP exams in 2006, compared to slightly more than 28,000 in 1996.

The growing demand has emerged as more and more colleges and universities have almost come to expect to see the letters "AP" dotting students' transcripts as a sign they challenged themselves in high school.

"We place a lot of value on the transcript that has AP, as well as International Baccalaureate," said David Lee Henry, associate director of admission for the University of Miami. "We presume based on the fact that it is flagged AP ... that the course is challenging for the student."

Of course, not all AP courses are the same. And not all students meet the mark. Florida students earned passing marks on just 47 percent of the exams taken in 2005, for instance, compared to 59 percent nationally.

Some colleges and universities look at AP with a somewhat jaded perspective because of this.

"Sure, we like to see those on a transcript," said Barbara Strickler, University of Tampa vice president for enrollment. "But we don't always know what they really mean, because there's no standardized AP class. It's pretty loosey-goosey."

College admissions offices were the real driver behind the course audit, said Tom Matts, director of the AP audit.

"Admissions officers wanted to know if they should be crediting the transcript with the additional weight they usually gave to Advanced Placement classes when they don't know what's going on in the classroom," Matts said.

The audit will help admissions officers better interpret courses marked "AP" on transcripts, said Jennifer Topiel, College Board spokeswoman.

By November, the College Board will have a log on its Web site, where anyone will be able to see which courses have been authorized to use the AP designation at each school.

To get reviewed in time to make the list, teachers must submit a syllabus and an AP course audit form by June 1. That will give the College Board time to respond with its recommendation and give teachers time to react.

Schools develop their own curriculum for AP courses, according to the College Board. The course audit "specifies a set of expectations established by college and university faculty for college-level courses."

For some, the June 1 deadline didn't matter.

Bob O'Donnell, who teaches AP European history at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs, already turned his forms in and received his approval.

"To me, it's kind of a good thing to go back and look at what you're doing," said O'Donnell, who started teaching AP courses in 1976.

For others, the endeavor loomed large.

"It's everything," said Caryn McDermott, assistant principal at Land O'Lakes High School. "If you don't get that okay, you can teach whatever you want, but you can't call it AP. That's the No. 1 thing colleges are looking for on transcripts."

The audit comes at a busy time for Land O'Lakes High, as the school also is going through a separate five-year review of its International Baccalaureate program.

"It's been a very tough year for our teachers," McDermott said.

The audit also involves more than just current AP teachers. Anyone who wants to begin teaching an AP course also has to turn in materials for authorization, Topiel said.

Schools that are preparing new AP offerings, such as Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, are pulling together the needed documents.

"It has been a big task," said assistant principal Maria Swanson, who is overseeing that school's effort to add five AP courses next year. The teachers "are looking not only at what they have to go through to teach college-level classes, but they also have to go through an audit."

At least two Wiregrass Ranch teachers planning an AP course have not taught one before.

Topiel said the College Board doesn't plan to police schools to make sure they're not offering unauthorized AP courses. The group expects, though, that students, parents and educators will take a closer look - once the list of approved courses goes online - to ensure they get what they expect: an authorized, high-quality, college-level course.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

What's available for top students?

Honors courses: These are developed locally by teachers to meet the needs of academically advanced students. They generally do not have independent benchmarks to measure student performance.

Advanced Placement: Sponsored by the College Board, AP courses are designed to resemble college courses. The College Board has curriculum outlines and specific teacher training. Students can take exams afterward based on the subject matter.

International Baccalaureate: A two-year curriculum for high-achieving high school students, who graduate with a special diploma if they successfully complete it. The program core includes extended essay, theory of knowledge and creativity, action and service.

Dual enrollment: Students can earn college credit by taking college courses while still in high school. The courses are offered free, either at the high schools or on college campuses.