Nearly 30,000 high school students in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties bent over Advanced Placement tests this month, striving to earn college credit before they ever set foot on campus.
AP courses, once reserved for a school's best and brightest, have gained broader popularity among schools and students not always known for their academic rigor. In Florida, the numbers of students taking the college-caliber classes almost doubled from 68,000 in 2004 to 131,818 in 2009.
And while some educators worry that AP's diminishing exclusivity could undermine the program's value, college admissions counselors throughout Florida say, for them, AP hasn't lost its shine.
"Quite the opposite," said J. Robert Spatig, director of graduate admissions for the University of South Florida. "We want students to have that experience, the exposure to rigorous material that is standardized nationally."
A handful of universities elsewhere appear to be rethinking that.
James M. Glaser, dean of undergraduate education at Tufts University, said a four-year, 33 percent surge of AP score submissions forced faculty and administration to reconsider the wisdom of granting unlimited credit to incoming freshmen who stacked their transcripts with AP classes.
"In the view of the faculty," Glaser said, "it just feels a little out of control."
The school wanted to do a better job encouraging students to be well-rounded, he said. So, starting with the 2009-10 incoming freshmen, credits for AP scores were capped at five.
At University of Florida, by comparison, where 98 percent of 2009's incoming freshmen completed an AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge University's Advanced International Certification of Education, freshmen could claim as many as 45 college credits if the qualified.
Glaser said the Tufts faculty recognizes that a student who takes AP coursework shows a level of motivation that is attractive, but ultimately professors felt that the AP classes didn't always align with what would have been taught at Tufts.
Still, no one seems to doubt that AP does a good job of preparing students for more rigorous coursework.
The College Board, creator of the AP exam, boasts that students who complete an AP course are more likely to graduate from college within four years than those who don't.
"It's exciting to see more and more high-quality students take freshman classes every year," said Ed Gillis, executive director of admissions for the University of Miami, where overall applications are up 18 percent over last year. "It keeps the faculty very happy."
Figures show that just as high schools are administering more AP courses and tests than ever, colleges are raking in more and more freshmen with course credit earned through the tests.
The University of Tampa in 2005 admitted 283 students with AP credit. By last year, that number climbed 68 percent to 477. The story is similar at USF, where in 2005, 29 percent of the freshmen admitted brought AP credit with them. By last year, that was up to a whopping 46 percent — almost half of the freshman class.
"We still view it as a positive," said Dennis Nostrand, vice president for enrollment management at UT. "It's a sign that the students are stretching themselves to try to take more challenging courses."
The Ivy League also appears to remain impressed with the curriculum and the caliber AP students.
"It is a curriculum we all know and understand and have respect for," said Jim Miller, dean of admissions for Brown University.
Florida admissions counselors who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times said that ultimately they are less interested in the exam scores than in the fact that students attempted the higher level courses, in part because senior scores aren't available until months after students have been admitted.
A national report released in February showed that Florida ranked No. 5 among states in the percentage of graduating seniors who scored a passing 3 or above on at least one AP exam. But as more students took the tests, the state's overall passage rate was dropping.
Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard University, said that at his university, AP scores provide a more important indicator of a students' academic caliber. And the school only rewards the highest scores.
At University of Florida, a score of 3 out of 5 in Art History could earn a student three college credits, while a score of 4 or 5 could bring six college credits.
But an incoming Harvard student must earn a score of 5 out of 5 to get any college credit at all. Even that only awards the student a half to one full credit, depending on the subject.
"The AP continues to be a very good predictor of how well students achieve at Harvard," Fitzsimmons said, adding that the growing ranks of students taking AP classes doesn't alarm him. "Florida is known at Harvard as a place that does offer lots of IB and AP students, so we know those students are going to be well-prepared."
Steve Orlando, spokesman for University of Florida, cautioned that while a student's penchant for taking more challenging classes can't hurt, it still doesn't guarantee admission. AP hasn't lost its luster, but neither has class diversity — economic, athletic, ethnic and more.
"We're looking at the whole student, and what that student can bring to a campus," he said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (727) 893-8707 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or firstname.lastname@example.org.