College & Workforce Readiness

Among AP Courses, Geography and Environment Are Hot

February 18, 2012 8 min read
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Geography may not be particularly known as a hot topic among today’s students—even some advocates suggest it suffers from an image problem—but by at least one measure, the subject is starting to come into its own.

Across more than 30 topics covered in the Advanced Placement program, participation in geography is rising faster than any other. It’s joined by AP courses like Chinese, environmental science, psychology, and world history that have been gaining ground most rapidly in recent years.

New data show that for the class of 2011, some 45,000 AP exams were taken in geography, more than quadrupling the figure from the graduating class five years earlier. And participation is up 30 percent compared with the class of 2010.

“We’ve been gratified by the dramatic growth over its young life,” said Daniel C. Edelson, the vice president for education at the National Geographic Society, located in Washington. “People have very out-of-date ideas of what [geography] is. They think it’s learning trivia for bar contests, so it’s a long arduous path to prominence.”

The latest “AP Report to the Nation,” issued this month by the New York City-based College Board, offers a window into the course preferences of public schools and students, though a variety of factors can influence changes in participation.

Trends in AP Test-Taking

What’s Hot


SOURCES: College Board, Education Week

Of course, even with the rapid growth of subjects like geography and environmental science, the Big Three in the AP universe—U.S. history, English language and composition, and English literature and composition—are unlikely to be unseated from their dominant position anytime soon. All three exceeded 300,000 tests taken by the class of 2011, and their trend lines continue on a steady, upward tilt.

Meanwhile, even as the overall trend in participation is on the ascent, and most subjects are seeing at least some annual growth, not all are keeping pace. In fact, both the German and French language and culture programs saw test-taking figures decline slightly for the class of 2011 when compared with the prior year’s graduating class.

Also, several subjects saw big declines for that class because the tests were recently discontinued, including Computer Science AB, French literature, Latin literature, and Italian language and culture. (Italian, however, was just reinstated for this academic year.)

College Board officials and outside experts say a variety of issues have a bearing on participation levels over time.

“It probably is a combination of things, and it’s not the same for every course,” said Auditi Chakravarty, the executive director of the College Board’s AP curriculum and assessment program. “It’s student interest, definitely, but also teacher availability and interest to teach the course.”

Other factors, she added, include how new a course is, the extent to which a school or district lays the groundwork by preparing students in prior classes, or even the grade level at which the course is typically offered (and whether it’s competing with other AP courses in the same domain, such as social studies).

‘Room to Grow’

One thing about AP participation overall is certainly clear: It continues to grow rapidly.

For the class of 2011, about 904,000 students took at least one exam, up roughly 50,000 from the prior class and up more than 250,000 from 2006. Going back 10 years, the number of students taking at least one AP course has more than doubled.

College Board data indicate that 30 percent of 2011 graduates took at least one AP exam.

However, student success in the program is another matter. The national passing rate for the class of 2011 was about the same as for the prior class, rising just 0.1 percent to 56.2 percent. That figure is well down from the 60.8 percent who passed in 2001.

Across subjects areas, there’s no obvious pattern. Some passing rates are up, some are down when comparing the class of 2011 with the prior year’s graduating class.

For example, in environmental science, the passing rate dipped from 49.3 percent to 47.6 percent. In human geography, it declined from 51 percent to 50.1 percent, well below the 62 percent passing rate for the class of 2006.

On the flip side, in European history, the passing rate rose from 61.2 percent for the class of 2010 to 64.5 percent for this past year’s graduating seniors. In English language and composition, it rose from 58 percent to 59.2 percent.

With regard to the dramatic growth in student participation in the geography program, called AP Human Geography, Mr. Edelson credits two main factors.

“It reflects the interest in the subject and the fact that there is still a lot of room to grow across the country,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody has a projection for how long it will continue at this pace, but we’re nowhere near saturation.”

He said the growth comes at a time when advocates for geography education have struggled to bring more attention to the subject in schools.

“One thing we’ve been working on for quite some time is the fact that geography is no longer a required course in a lot of places,” he said.

And Mr. Edelson counts himself as a big fan of the AP course.

“It was designed by a really sophisticated group of geographers and geographic educators, so it really reflects the contemporary view of what geography is,” he said. “What I like about it is that it focuses a lot on geographic reasoning. It teaches about the models geographers use to explain human migration and urbanization.”

Mr. Edelson added: “The stereotype of geography is, ‘What is where?,’ but geography is really very analytical, and AP geography can be a great introduction to how geographers explain or predict what goes on in the world.”

Word of Mouth

The growth in environmental science, meanwhile, has been welcomed by advocates of increased environmental literacy.

The number of tests taken in that subject has more than doubled since the class of 2006, to 79,738 for the class of 2011.

“The growth rate is indeed impressive,” said James L. Elder, the director of the nonprofit Campaign for Environmental Literacy, based in Manchester, Mass. “Of course, it’s growing from a relatively low base number. But still, it’s occurring despite the dampening effect of [the federal] No Child Left Behind [Act] on most subjects, including all forms of science.”

Hemalatha Bhaskaran, who teaches three sections of AP environmental science at James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury, Md., said interest has grown as “word spread” among students about the course.

The school added two sections just last school year.

“Students liked the fact that they were studying something that they can really relate to and really affects them,” said Ms. Bhaskaran, “and taking field trips, doing hands-on experiments, and all the fun stuff.”

Ms. Chakravarty from the College Board said the AP course taps into a convergence of student interest and global awareness.

“Student interest, global attention, national attention in the area of environmental science has really boomed, and I think that’s a big piece,” she said.

Beyond environmental science, all AP science and math programs (except the discontinued Computer Science AB) have seen fairly steady growth in participation recently.

Some AP language study is also on the rise, including the Chinese and Japanese language and culture programs, both introduced in 2006, as well as Spanish. In addition, while Latin literature was halted in 2009, the Latin: Vergil course—which seeks to help students read, translate, and interpret Latin, with a focus on the Aeneid—has grown rapidly.

The fastest growth by far is in Chinese, where the number of tests taken quadrupled from the class of 2007 to 2011, though it was just 4,126 in all. Spanish remains far and away the most popular of the AP language courses, with 94,240 test-takers in 2011, up from 78,150 five years earlier.

Italian language and culture was eliminated in 2009, but a backlash from Italian-American groups and the Italian government, in concert with a fundraising campaign to pay for its restoration, has revived the program. The exam, first offered in 2006 and last given in 2009, will be offered again this May.

Adieu French?

Meanwhile, the French language and culture program, revised for this school year, has seen participation drop—from 14,028 tests taken for the class of 2010 to 13,558 for the class of 2011. Going back five years, 13,909 tests were taken by the class of 2006.

To be sure, the decline is very small, but it’s especially striking at a time when most other AP courses are growing significantly year by year.

Jayne E. Abrate, the executive director of the American Association of Teachers of French, suggests that one factor was the recent action by the College Board to eliminate the AP French literature program, even as she also noted that in recent years some schools have stopped offering French altogether.

Cutting French literature was not exactly well-received among French language and literature educators.

“Outrage is the only word to describe it,” Ms. Abrate said of the reaction. “There were letter-writing campaigns, protests. AP literature teachers had their students write letters.”

She believes the end of that program may have diminished participation in AP French language and culture, since students studying French now can only earn one AP course credit instead of two. Ms. Abrate said student interest in French is strong, and that it deserves a place in more schools.

“There is a very erroneous belief on the part of some that, for example, Spanish or Chinese is more useful than French,” she said. “I don’t think it’s interest on the part of the students. I think it’s the lack of awareness on the part of many decisionmakers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as AP Geography, Environmental Science Thrive


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