- Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
For decades, Advanced Placement classes have been the gold standard in America’s high schools, rigorous courses that give students a chance to earn college credit and lend prestige to the schools that offer them. Prodded by state financial incentives, high schools across Florida expanded AP classes dramatically over the past 15 years to more than 170,000 students a year.
But in Palm Beach County the popularity of AP classes is declining after years of rapid growth, as the county’s public high schools steer more students into a lesser known, less rigid series of college-level classes created by England’s University of Cambridge.
Cambridge’s program – the Advanced International Certificate of Education program, or AICE – has grown more than four-fold in three years in Palm Beach County. School administrators say that more than 10,500 high school students are taking AICE classes this year for a chance at college credit and a special diploma, nearly equaling the 11,300 who take AP classes.
Educators say one reason for AICE’s explosive growth is that many teachers and students find the classes, which stress essay writing and project-based learning, more dynamic than AP courses, which rely more heavily on memorization and multiple-choice exams.
Another reason: A provision in state law makes AICE classes more lucrative for schools than AP classes, providing a financial incentive for administrators to favor them.
As a result, the number of students enrolled in AP classes countywide has dropped by 14 percent in two years. If the trend continues, next year more students could be taking AICE classes than AP classes in Palm Beach County’s public schools, a dramatic shift considering that it was just six years ago that Boca Raton Community High School implemented the county’s first permanent AICE program.
Teachers and students praise Cambridge’s classes for requiring a deeper and more analytical understanding of the coursework. Rather than multiple-choice exams, most AICE exams require students to demonstrate mastery of a subject exclusively through essays, a testing style similar to the International Baccalaureate program also offered at five county high schools.
“You’re using your mind. You’re not just memorizing,” said Brooke Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at Palm Beach Central High School who has taken both types of classes. “It’s hard to do well in AICE classes if you’re just memorizing.”
Hands-on learning and group work are key aspects of the AICE (pronounced “ace”) curriculum, educators say. In some classes, students complete a semester-long project instead of taking an exam. In physics and biology, the exam requires conducting a lab experiment. One English exam asks students to analyze an incomplete poem or prose passage and devise an ending in the writing style of the original author.
“I feel like everyone who goes through the process of an AICE class benefits,” said Boca Raton High Principal Geoff McKee, whose school started the county’s first permanent program. “It’s not just learning about events. They become part of the process. There’s a difference between being presented with information and true learning.”
Schools cash in
The program at Boca Raton High, which launched AICE classes in 2008, has been mimicked by other high schools, most notably Wellington High, Palm Beach Central High and Jupiter High. This year, each of those four schools have more than 1,000 students taking AICE classes.
Educators say the program provides a host of benefits for students, including the fact that earning an AICE diploma qualifies them for Florida Bright Futures college tuition scholarships. (Students who take only AP classes can only qualify for Bright Futures by meeting test-score and grade-point-average requirements).
But the classes also are a windfall for high schools, with state incentives implemented in 2000 to encourage more advanced classes. Each time a student passes an AP, AICE or IB exam this year, their school will receive $530.
Good results can raise schools’ state grades, and they add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at most of the county’s high schools. Seven county schools are expected to earn more than $800,000 this year from students’ performances on AP, AICE and IB exams, with Boca Raton High leading the way with a projected $2.4 million. Some of that covers the cost of administering exams and training teachers. The rest can be used for teacher bonuses, new textbooks and computers, and to hire additional instructors.
The state payout is the same regardless of whether a student takes an AP, IB or AICE exam. But state law provides an additional $995 incentive for every student who earns an AICE diploma or an IB diploma.
Because the AP program, administered by the non-profit College Board, does not offer a diploma recognized by the state, schools risk leaving money on the table when students choose AP classes over AICE classes. (A new AP Capstone diploma is offered in some area schools but doesn’t yet confer the financial benefits of an AICE or IB diploma).
The extra money earned off diploma-earners adds up to serious cash at a school like Palm Beach Central High, which this year expects to have at least 123 students earn AICE diplomas. That’s more than $120,000 on top of what students will bring in for passing AICE and AP exams.
School officials acknowledge the financial advantages of steering students toward AICE classes but downplay it as a factor in the program’s popularity.
“We will be more profitable after this year because of the AICE diplomas,” said Darren Edgecomb, Palm Beach Central’s principal. “But the other draw to me is, with all the standardized testing, the way the curriculum is set up.”
Teachers praise flexibility
Teachers and administrators say AP and AICE classes both have advantages, and that their schools typically use a combination to serve the needs of students. AICE offers classes in niche subjects like travel and tourism, marine science, and photography that dovetail well with schools’ choice programs. Sometimes, a student may take an AICE class on a subject like Spanish or history one year and the AP version of the class in another.
“If there’s a generalization that you can make, it’s probably that AICE classes tend to have a narrower scope and tend to go a lot more in depth, and Advanced Placement has a much wider scope but is not as in depth,” said Mario Crocetti, principal of Wellington High School. “And there’s pros and cons to both.”
But inevitably, some schools have to choose between offering AICE or AP versions of a course. Several schools this year saw the number of students taking AP classes fall substantially while AICE enrollments rose, including William T. Dwyer High, Palm Beach Lakes High, Royal Palm Beach High and Boynton Beach High.
Teachers often say they prefer AICE classes because they require them to cover fewer topics, allowing more flexibility in planning the curriculum.
“You can take your time on the subject you want to take your time on,” said Tim Large, a science teacher at Palm Beach Central High who taught AP classes for years but now teaches AICE courses instead. “With AP, you have to kick the can down the hallway. You have to keep going and going without stopping.”
“I like (AICE) better than AP,” said Don Meyers, a Palm Beach Central psychology teacher who also has taught both curriculums. “Besides the rigor, the pace allows us to explore topics more in depth.”
Cambridge began awarding its AICE diploma in 1993, and two years later a high school in Florida’s Panhandle became the state’s first to introduce it as a pilot program. Florida recognized AICE classes an an accelerated program in 2002.
The program spread slowly at first in the United States, but Cambridge says it has grown rapidly in recent years, particularly in Palm Beach County, which now has 18 of the approximately 300 high schools nationwide that offer AICE diplomas.
Larry Greenberg, an assistant principal at Palm Beach Central High, said few parents knew what AICE classes were when the school started its program in 2012. But, he said, that changed fast.
“We started selling it to the kids and the community, and the community fell in love with it,” he said.
Although they are in decline for now, administrators say, AP classes aren’t going anywhere. The county’s public school system is pushing a policy of “open access” to college-level classes and wants more students to graduate with at least one college credit or industry certification under their belt, meaning roles for all of the county’s accelerated-curriculum programs.
“Our goal is to accelerate all kids as much as possible,” said Keith Oswald, the county school system’s chief academic officer. “Now if you have the desire, you have an opportunity.”