Advanced Placement Accountabaloney

Florida prides itself in the number of Advanced Placement courses its high school students take. Is it too much of a good thing? Are decisions being made in the best interest of each student? If you live in Floriduh, you will not be surprised to learn that when you follow the money, you find a bunch of accountabaloney.

In February 2016, the Florida Department of Education celebrated Florida’s position   as  second in the nation for the percentage of 2015 Florida high school graduates taking an Advanced Placement (AP) exam while in high school and third place for the percentage of 2015 high school graduates potentially earning college credit by scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam.

Other highlights included:

  • 57.7 percent of Florida 2015 graduates took an AP exam during high school, exceeding  the national average (37.3 percent)
  • Over the last decade, the number of Florida graduates participating in AP more than doubled, increasing from 40,276 students in 2005 to 86,400 students in 2015, an increase of 115 percent.
  • Florida ranks third in the nation for the percentage of 2015 graduates who potentially earned college credit by scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams (30.7 percent, higher than the national average of 22.4%).
  • Over time, increasing numbers of Hispanic, African American and low income students are taking and passing Advanced Placement courses/tests.

The increasing numbers of successful Advanced Placement participants is certainly the result of an accountability system that rewards participation in Advanced Placement Courses.

Beginning in 2010, Florida adjusted it’s school grade formula to reward (first) participation and (now) performance on Advanced Placement assessments. Currently, up to 10% of a High School’s grade is based on the percentage of graduates who earned a score on an acceleration examination (a level 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam), a “C” or better in a dual enrollment course, or earned an industry certification. For the purpose of calculating this rate, a student is counted no more than once in the numerator and denominator. Students who pass more than one AP course (or dual enrollment course or industry certification) do not earn any extra points in the school grade calculation.

The College Board, who created and administers Advanced Placement exams, has frequently reported that students who are successful in AP exams are more likely to graduate college. From Florida’s current school grades report, it appears that the current  system has been successful in providing at least some accelerated courses (either AP, IB, AICE, dual enrollment or industry certification) for all of Florida’s high school students.

If passing one AP exam is good, is passing more exams better? Anyone with a child in Florida’s high schools today knows that students are being pressured to take increasing numbers of AP courses, resulting in some students taking as many as 10, 15 or more AP courses during their high school career. How many is too many?

Jay Matthews, who covered college admissions for The Washington Post for more than two decades, wrote, in an article titled “Why We Wrongly Freak Out Over AP”:

“I have interviewed scores of college admissions officers and read the briefing materials of hundreds of colleges. Not one has ever said that adding an Advanced Placement class can make or break one’s chances of getting in.

Selective colleges want to see applicants take the most challenging courses at their high schools. In most cases, particularly in the Washington region, that means AP, International Baccalaureate or the Advanced International Certificate of Education. Selective colleges also like to see three to five AP courses, with good scores on the tests to show that the student is ready for college work. That can be accomplished by taking one AP course sophomore year, one or two in the junior year and one or two in the senior year — not an overwhelming burden for any student with a shot at a selective college.

Taking six, seven, eight or 20 AP courses will almost never make you more attractive to those colleges that reject more students than they accept. Your chances with them depend on your SAT or ACT scores, the depth of your extracurricular activities, the warmth of your teacher recommendations and your grade-point average compared with other students at your school applying to the same college.”

High School students, bogged down by excessive numbers of AP courses each year, may find little time to delve into extracurricular activities, participate in character building community service or, frankly, enjoy their life. While college admissions officers may recommend 4 or 5 AP classes TOTAL, in many Florida high schools it is not uncommon to find students taking 3 or 4 (or more) AP courses A YEAR. The stress of an excessive number of AP courses may be more than a high school student can, or should, be expected to handle as illustrated in this New York Times video Op-ed entitled “Advanced Pressure.”

Please take 5 minutes to watch this New York Times Op-Ed documentary, where filmmaker Vicki Abeles “features the stories of students and teachers of Advanced Placement classes and the pressures they face in our achievement-obsessed culture”:


“What are we doing to our kids when we put them through this system that doesn’t allow them get enough sleep and causes them to be ramped up and stressed out?” -Jay Chugh, Teacher, Lafayette, CA.

Once heralded as essential to a rigorous high school education, Advanced Placement courses are now being questioned as “too rigid” and even eliminated by elite private schools. John Tierney, writing for The Atlantic, suggests how, though they may have initially been developed with good intentions,  somewhere along the line AP courses appear to have become corrupted by corporate profits (at $89 per test, the College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined). Mr. Tierney states that AP courses are NOT equivalent to college courses, that claims of saving money in college are overstated, and that the push to increase enrollment has resulted in students who are marginally prepared for the rigors of an AP course diluting the experience for students who might be well placed in such courses. His greatest criticism is the effect of the AP curriculum on creativity and free thought:

“To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”

The death of intellectual curiosity should concern everyone. A recent article in Psychology Today, looked at the relationship of college grade point average (GPA) and creativity, noting an inverse relationship between students’ reported GPA and their orientation toward creative or innovative work.  The higher a student’s GPA, the lower was the students’ interest in innovation. In addition, the article sounded the alarm regarding the effect our current test focused education may have on future innovation: “In the United States, as our schools have moved increasingly toward an almost exclusive emphasis on test performance, creative thinking, objectively measured, has been declining at every grade level.”

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, parents have become increasingly concerned with the loss of creative, authentic experiences in the classroom, pushed out by increasing levels of test preparation for high stakes standardized testing. Rather than developing “the whole child” with art, music and other creative programing, students are spending more and more time focused on and preparing for tests. In such an environment, should Advanced Placement courses be considered just more “teaching to the test”? Is that what our students need?

At the end of the “Advanced Pressure” documentary, high school teacher, Jay Chugh, suggests a solution: “The best thing to do would be to get rid of the AP program and just design a course that prepares students for the college experience.” Ahhh, such a system used to exist, and in some instances still does, and it was called “honors courses.” Of course, in Florida, students who pass honors courses do NOT count in the “College and Career Acceleration” category of the School Grading system. Also, if students abandoned AP courses for equal rigorous honors courses, the FLDOE might no longer have national bragging rights. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to returning to more honors classes in Florida’s public high schools, would be the lost incentive funding paid to the schools and teachers.

F.S. 1011.62 (n) provides financial incentives to schools depending on the numbers of level 3 and higher scores students earn on AP exams. For each student who earns a 3 or higher on an AP test, the district receives 0.16 of an FTE (Full time equivalent/per pupil spending). Currently this calculates to approximately $1,000 per successful AP score. If students are able to pass multiple AP tests each year, the amount can quickly add up.  Districts are required to allocate at least 80% of those funds to the high school whose student generated the funds. Teachers of Advanced Placement courses are also rewarded $50 for each of their students that pass the AP test with a score of 3 or higher, up to $2,000 per teacher each year.  Extra incentives are available for teachers in “D” or “F” schools, who will receive an additional $500 if just one student passes the AP test. [Similar financial incentives for schools offering International Baccalaureate programs/exams are outlined in F.S.1011.62(l).]

Last year, Monroe County increased the financial incentives for AP participation in their schools when it joined in partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative, another profit generating (net profit of $7 million in 2014) non-profit, which has the goal of increasing successful participation in specific STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and AP Literature courses. Despite concerns that the “STEM crisis” might be a myth, Monroe County School District entered into a 3 year, almost $2 million, contract with NMSI, who lists the College Board as a partner and “funder.” Everytime NMSI is successful in increasing participation in AP courses, its partner, College Board, increases revenue. In addition to providing aggressive (much needed Monroe County) professional development programs for AP instructors, the NMSI program rewards students, teachers and administrators for successful AP test scores. Such funds are in addition to the previously described FS 1011.62(n) bonus funding.

NMSI Awards and Incentives

Given these financial incentives, it is difficult to imagine that schools might scale back on AP courses in pursuit of a more balanced education experience for students. When administrators receive bonuses based on AP scores, will they work to increase dual enrollment or honors participation? Not likely. Monroe County AP teachers could earn more than  $6,500 annually if 30 of their AP students score a 3 or higher. Would these teachers be willing to give that up to teach an honors class?
Florida’s test based accountability system is designed to encourage participation in Advanced Placement and other acceleration programs. A 2009 OPPAGA Report (Report No. 09-12) showed the incentive funding for AP courses exceeded the required program costs by more than $30 million annually. With increasing AP enrollment and, therefore, increasing costs, the OPPAGA study recommended reducing the level of incentive funding, but little legislative action was taken.  The incentive programs and school grades system are to be designed to encourage (push) more and more students into AP courses, without regard to any potentially negative impact on the students’ unique education needs.
So when it comes to Advanced Placement in Florida’s high schools, the winners are:
  • The College Board, with profits of $62 MILLION annually.
  • The FLDOE, with national bragging rights regarding AP participation AND the ability to deflect attention from declining SAT and ACT scores.
  • Districts, high schools and teachers, who receive bonus funding.
  • National Math Science Initiative, ready to expand across the state.
The losers? Overstressed high school students, curiosity and innovation and those who value an authentic education experience.
Expensive programming that benefits everyone’s bottom line, while underserving the educational needs of the students, is more evidence of Florida’s failed accountability system. It is time to reign in the overemphasis of Advanced Placement coursework in our classrooms. Schools should be offering students the courses that best fit their individual interests and needs and not the courses that provide the biggest bonuses.