College & Workforce Readiness

Advanced Placement Continues Growth In and Out of STEM

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 08, 2016 3 min read
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An early look at figures from the 2016 Advanced Placement tests shows continued growth in test-taking in subjects such as physics and computer science, and a trend of increasing scores in a number of fast-growing subjects.

On the College Board’s new Physics 2 exam, for instance, the mean score increased from 2.77 to 2.89 between 2015 and 2016, even as the number of test-takers grew by nearly 30 percent.

Some topline figures about Advanced Placement test-taking in 2016 were shared with a group of AP teachers at a conference in Anaheim and with Education Week last month. More data on AP test-taking, including demographic information, will be released later in the year.

STEM Trends

The College Board has touted growth in test-taking on the 12 STEM tests in recent years, and that growth continued this year. In 2016, 62,000 additional students took tests in calculus, physics, biology, environmental science, statistics, chemistry, and computer science. (There are several tests in calculus and physics.) There was a 4 percent increase in overall STEM test-taking, from 1,447,760 tests administered in 2015 to 1,510,177 in 2016.

Computer science and physics in particular have seen rapid growth again: The number of students taking the computer science test grew from 48,994 to 57,934 between 2015 and 2016, an 18 percent increase, and Physics 2, a newer course, saw the number of test-takers grow from 20,533 to 26,384, a 28 percent increase.

But the subjects with the most new test-takers were actually in the humanities and social sciences: human geography, English language and composition, world history, and U.S. history each had more than 19,000 additional students taking exams in 2016 than in previous years. Biology had the most new test-taking students of STEM courses, with 14,539 new test-takers. Many students take a number of tests.

Scores and Participation

Many of the tests that have increased participation have also seen scores increase or hold steady. Trevor Packer, the senior vice president of AP and Instruction at the College Board, said the course tests are designed to ensure that changes in scores over time show changes in mastery.

A group of subjects that have tripled participation in a decade saw slight drops in mean scores:

Overall, more subjects saw increases in scores than saw declines. Some of this year’s fast-growing courses, including biology and psychology, did see drops in scores as participation increased between 2015 and 2016:

Packer said in an interview that growth in scores in many fast-growing subjects shows that the students who are enrolling “had every right to be there... . It’s a tremendous act of justice.”

A study from the American Enterprise Institute released earlier this year found that the academic caliber of students enrolled in AP classes, as gauged by scores on the NAEP, had not dropped despite the fact that more students are taking the classes.

Packer said that the growth in the program overall has come as a result of recruiting efforts on the part of the College Board and of growing interest among individual teachers, schools, and policymakers. Eighteen 18 states have passed laws that require state colleges to grant students credit for AP coursework, Packer said.

Corrected: This post initially misstated the growth in the number of students taking the AP Physics 2 test.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.