WHEN Jennifer Krugman began teaching college-level, advanced-placement English courses at Coral Gables High School in the 1970s, she had three classes full. This past year, Coral Gables filled 13 advanced-placement English classes.
Similar growth in advanced-placement courses - typically the highest-level courses a high school offers - has occurred throughout Florida.
In 1983, Florida lawmakers decided to give extra money to school districts according to the number of students who earn passing scores on advanced-placement exams.
Since that bill passed, the total number of exams taken in the state has roughly quadrupled. The number of high schools offering such courses has grown from 187 to 287.
No one has established a solid statistical connection between these state funds and student achievement, but Florida educators have found it a real boon to quality.
``I think it has been one of the most positive programs the Legislature has passed,'' says Carleton Henley, principal of Lyman High School, north of Orlando.
Advanced-placement courses are college-level courses offered in high schools. Students finish each course by taking a lengthy exam administered by the nonprofit College Board. Most colleges, including the most exclusive, give course credit to students who earn passing scores on the exam.
As the number of students taking AP courses and exams grows, the kind of student changes. Where once only a small elite with high prospects for success enrolled in AP, the net is now cast wider. Students are encouraged to enroll, says Mrs. Krugman, ``who don't stand a statistically great chance of scoring well.''
The result is that more students are exposed to the rigor of higher-level academics and a greater proportion fail to pass the AP exams. In Krugman's classes, the pass rate has dropped from 96 percent to about 75 percent of the students.
But she has no regrets. Even those students who fail to earn college credit, she says, gain much more in critical thinking and rhetorical skills than they would in standard high school classes.
Legislatures around the South have been picking up the AP banner. Of seven states in the country that promote AP legislatively, five are in the South: Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia, which is joining the others this fall.
Florida's legislation gives out roughly $600 to a school district for each time a student earns a passing score on an AP exam. The money provides an incentive - as well as the financial means - to expand AP programs.
At some schools, the money amounts to more than the extra cost of AP programs. Lyman High School gets about $40,000 a year from the state through its AP passers. Among other things, it has purchased a 25-machine computer lab with the money.
Teachers feared expanding the AP program at first, says Mr. Henley, because they could be judged harshly if students did not do well. Now, he says, the school actively promotes AP enrollment.
AP courses are also becoming established in inner-city schools with little history of college-level achievement. It takes three to four years to develop a solid AP course at a school, says Vera Jackson, who administers AP programs for Dade County public schools.
Dade County passes out its AP bonus money in a way meant to strengthen the newer, struggling programs. While the state gives money to the districts according to the previous year's successful AP students, Dade passes out the money to the schools according to the current year's AP enrollment - regardless of how many of the students eventually pass the exam.
This extra state funding AP was created to offset the higher cost of such courses due to smaller classes and college texts, according to Lee Roberts of the state Department of Education.
The funds themselves seldom become an actual incentive to expand enrollment at the classroom level. ``The worth of a program has got to be intrinsic,'' says Krugman. ``To do it for the money would not be good.''
Not all school districts put their AP-earned money back into AP programs. Geoff Freer of the College Board's Southern regional office would like to see more state control of Florida's programs. South Carolina, for example, has the most comprehensive state AP laws in the nation. All public high schools are required to offer AP courses, and AP teachers must attend a summer institute for special training.
In 10 Southern states, the number of AP exams administered grew from 33,000 in 1983 to about 90,000 in 1988. Florida is now behind only California and New York in total number of AP exams.
But the average score in Florida is 2.79, below the passing score of 3. The national average is 3.08.