Hundreds of freshmen at Mainland High School in Daytona lost the chance to earn $600 worth of college credit this year, and the school's principal is under investigation after giving those students a "placebo" exam instead of an official one.

Of the 414 freshmen enrolled in a new Advanced Placement Seminar course at the Daytona Beach school this year, only 78 of them took the final exam that would give them college credit if they passed.

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The remaining 336 students and their parents most likely don’t know they took a “placebo” test, thanks to plans by school officials to make it look like the real thing.

But come July 5, when scores are released by the organization that puts out AP exams, more than three-quarters of the students in the class won’t be able to find an official score. And neither will colleges.

The News-Journal obtained a 25-page summary of a Volusia schools investigation that indicates blunder on multiple levels: 

Mainland High School Principal Cheryl Salerno didn’t realize the course would give students college credit. District officials thought she had permission to test so few students from the College Board, the organization that creates and facilitates AP exams. Salerno thought she did, too — but a representative from the College Board said his office didn’t approve the plan and has never seen anything like it.

In fact, upon hearing about what happened, his first reaction was one of shock:

“Holy crap!” Bard Keeler said, according to the report.

Now, district officials are looking for a way the 336 affected students can retake the exam next year, and whether they will take disciplinary action against anyone involved.

How did this happen?

As it so often is, the path leading to this situation was paved with good intentions. Salerno, the principal, put the majority of Mainland’s freshmen into a college-readiness course called AP Seminar to see if it would impact their achievement later.

The course teaches students research and writing skills, and the final assessment is different than some other AP courses. Students must submit a portfolio that includes a research report and a written argument in April, then sit for an exam in May.

AP Seminar teacher Jason Kester explained that the purpose of the program was purely to “bridge learning gaps.” School officials openly promoted the course as an experiment, and Salerno later credited the course with raising the district's number of minority students who take advanced courses.

But the nearly $60,000 cost of offering the exam to all of the AP Seminar students proved to be out of reach for the school. And the district said it wouldn’t pay either. Instead, Salerno paid for the official exam for 78 students at $142 apiece — a cost of about $11,000 — and the remaining 336 were given a previous year's exam, made to look like the real one.

“The purpose of this course and its performance tasks was NEVER to earn a college credit, but to expose entering freshmen to a level of rigor,” Salerno wrote in a written statement to district investigators. “My intention was never to ‘dupe’ anyone nor do I believe anyone has been ‘victimized’ — I wanted accurate data by having all students do their best throughout this course.”

Salerno said the decision to officially test only a portion of students in the course emerged from a September 2018 meeting with former Chief Academic Officer Teresa Marcks, but she continued to hope that she would be able to test every student.

'Students have been cheated'

The investigation began when an anonymous complaint was submitted to the Florida Department of Education on May 9, and the DOE directed the district to look into it. The complainant alleged that 18 classes worth of ninth-graders were enrolled in the AP course, but only three of those classes took the AP exam. The rest took mock tests, but no one told the students they wouldn’t count for college credit.

“The students have been cheated out of the opportunity to earn college credit because the principal lied to them,” the complaint stated, further alleging that this constitutes fraud and that Salerno wanted to “pad” students’ grade point averages by enrolling them in the higher-level course. (College-level courses get extra weight in GPA calculations.)

But Salerno has a simple explanation that she maintained throughout the district’s month-long investigation, in which she was interviewed multiple times: she didn’t know students could get college credit from taking the course.

AP Seminar is designed to be taken in as a prerequisite to AP Research, which taken together can give a student a special diploma. At this time, Mainland only offers AP Seminar.

“I did not believe that the students could actually earn college credit for taking this one course without the other capstone course and with no opportunity to earn the certificate or diploma from Mainland High School,” she wrote.

Advanced Placement classes are widely known as a chance for students to take college-level courses in high school and earn college credits. Each AP Seminar exam costs schools $142. But depending on the college, a passing score on the test can translate into three credits for students — and save them about $600 in tuition at public in-state universities.

Keeler, senior director of Florida state and district partnerships for the College Board, explained to district investigators that the AP Seminar course was first offered in the 2012-2013 school year, and has been eligible for college credit since at least the 2014-2015 school year.

Students can get an elective credit for passing scores on the AP Seminar exam at 351 colleges or universities, according to the College Board website. Credit for other courses like AP Biology, AP Statistics and AP English Language and Composition are accepted at approximately 2,000 colleges and universities.

The district’s investigation showed that credit for AP Seminar is accepted at all public universities in Florida.

Instead of offering AP credit, Salerno explained that she wanted to gather data about the first class taking the exam. And she wanted to make sure that students taking a “placebo” test, as one school official called it, would treat it as seriously as they would the real thing. Hence the choice to leave them in the dark.

Was it wrong?

Throughout the investigation, the summary showed, teachers and school officials were very clear about one point: they never told students they could get credit from this course. The syllabus for the course doesn’t say it will give them college credit. AP Seminar teacher Vita Gaines said students never specifically asked her if they would get college credit. Another teacher, Kester, said he purposefully kept statements vague, telling students that “some” of them “may have the opportunity” to get college credit.

Only AP Seminar teacher Mark Convoy said he told his students it was "a college credited course" and discussed that with administrators.

Assistant Principal Robert Voges told investigators that AP Seminar was “inferenced” as a course for potential college credit, “but never sold that way.”

Salerno furthered this point by explaining the school didn’t receive any complaints from parents or students as of May 17.

But toward the end of the year, as the testing requirements for the AP exam neared, some of the teachers began to voice concerns.

Kester emailed Salerno in April with worries about some of the things he and the school’s testing administrator were discussing. Real AP exams, like most standardized tests, come with security protocols and required introductory steps. Students taking the real exam would receive stickers with a unique identification number, take a survey before the test and have to mark down a college code to indicate where they wanted their scores to be sent.

“As we’ve gotten closer to the testing and submission deadlines, new variables and obstacles keep presenting themselves,” Kester wrote to Salerno. “This process has gotten much more complicated and I have had a greater role in planning how to keep the students blind to the testing than I expected. Because of this, I worry that the College Board would question some of what we’ve done and I would be complicit because of my role in some of it.”

In another email, Kester said he doesn’t underestimate some students’ ability to “pick up on details that could make them question the authenticity of the test session.”

Responding to one of Kester’s initial emails about his concerns, Salerno said it was “the craziest thing I have ever heard.”

“There is absolutely no need to worry,” she told him.

Principal: Plan was allowed

Another teacher, Convoy, told investigators that he was “not comfortable” with the experiment to only test a handful of students.

Teachers were told to pick about one class section of about 30 students each that would take the exam. Kester said he chose two of his class periods with low enrollment. As the deadline for students to submit their portfolio drew near, he took students who hadn't finished the portfolio out of the testing group and put new ones in. Convoy said he chose a class period at the upper-middle level, but may have picked a different one if he had to do it again.

Salerno maintained that she and other officials confirmed with the College Board that their plan was allowable and they would not be penalized. The investigation summary does not include documentation of these conversations.

But when the district contacted Keeler, he said his organization didn't have an issue with the small number of students who took the actual exam — the problem was in the lack of communication.

“Mr. Keeler reiterated that he saw the way these students were tested from the AP Seminar course as a school level and district level problem because the parents and students were not properly notified about the district exams,” the summary stated.

But Keeler also said his office did not authorize the testing plan, adding that in his 13 years of work with AP testing, he’s never seen an issue like this one occur.

According to the summary, multiple district officials thought Salerno had cleared the plan with the College Board.

Where to go from here?

On June 14, the district sent the summary of its investigation to the Florida Department of Education. A spokeswoman said the DOE is reviewing the district’s response to determine its next steps.

According to the investigation, the district hasn’t taken any formal action at this point. It states that if substantiated, the allegation would mean Salerno violated the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession, as well as two School Board policies related to not misrepresenting facts to the public. The summary does not state if the allegations were substantiated.

Salerno has never been investigated before for misconduct by the district’s Office of Professional Standards. She has been principal at Mainland since 2007.

As for how to fix the problem, the district notified the DOE that it is in the process of developing a plan to notify the affected students and parents and to develop a process to let students take the three-part exam next year, including test-prep for willing students.

There is no opportunity for students to retake the exam this year.

This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.