Social Studies

AP English, U.S. History Biggest Draw, Outpacing STEM, Data Show

By Erik W. Robelen — February 25, 2013 5 min read
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In the Advanced Placement popularity contest, English and U.S. history continue to reign supreme, new data from the College Board show, far outpacing participation in math and science subjects.

That said, at a time when concern is high among policymakers to get more young people interested in the STEM fields, a steadily rising number of public high school graduates have taken an AP math or science exam. The figure nearly doubled, from 250,000 to 498,000, when comparing the class of 2002 with 2012, the new College Board report, issued last week, shows.

And yet, that growth has not kept pace with test-taking in English, history, and the social sciences. Across those subject areas, the nation has seen a 127 percent increase in the number of public high school graduates having taken an AP exam since 2002, the report shows. (In all, 780,000 students in the class of 2012 took an AP exam in one or more of those disciplines.)

For the big picture on results from the “9th Annual AP Report to the Nation,” check out the overview by my colleague Caralee Adams, over at the College Bound blog. As she reports, nearly one in five public high school graduates in the class of 2012 passed an AP exam, reflecting steady growth over time. A score of 3 or higher on the 1-to-5 scale is generally considered a passing score. The College Board says a 3 or higher is needed to earn advanced placement, college credit, or both at the majority of colleges and universities.)

The ‘Big Three’

In this blog post, I’ll dive more deeply into participation and performance in various AP subjects.

First, the Big Three courses when it comes to popularity remain English Language and Composition, English Literature and Composition, and United States History.

Here are the number of tests taken in those subjects for the class of 2012. (Note: The College Board statistics I relied on for individual subjects count how many AP tests are taken by public school students in a given graduating class. I’m told that only a very small percentage take the same test more than once.)

• English Language and Composition (358,000)
• United States History (345,000)
• English Literature and Composition (317,000)

Those participation rates are much higher than for math and science subjects. In fact, if you add up the test-taking figures for the Big Three (about 1 million), the total is significantly higher than for all 10 AP math and science subjects offered (877,000).

In any case, here are class of 2012 participation figures for the most popular math and science exams:

• Calculus AB (212,000)
• Biology (153,000)
• Statistics (129,000)
• Chemistry (100,000)
• Environmental Science (89,000)

I should note that if you include the total for a second calculus course, called Calculus BC, the total for calculus reaches 282,000. According to the College Board, the BC course covers all the content from Calculus AB, as well as “additional topics in differential and integral calculus.”

In its press release, the College Board highlighted the overall growth of participation in STEM courses over the past five years, but also pointed to significant variation by race/ethnicity and gender. It notes that six in 10 Asian-American and Pacific Islander students with a 60 percent or higher likelihood of succeeding on an AP math exam took the exam. That compares with four in 10 white students, three in 10 black and Hispanic students, and two in 10 American Indian and Alaska Native students. The College Board also says that in most STEM subjects, females participate at lower rates than males. (Last year, I blogged about gender preferences in a blog post titled, “Girls Like Biology, Boys Like Physics? AP Data Hint at Preferences.”)

Leaving aside those differences, here’s a list of the fastest-growing AP programs, when comparing the number of tests taken by the class of 2011 with 2012:

• Human Geography: up 22 percent, to 55,389
• Chinese Language and Culture: up 21 percent, to 4,983
• Studio Art 3-D: up 17 percent, to 3,127
• World History: up 16 percent, to 153,247
Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism: up 15 percent, to 12,766
• Computer Science: up 14 percent, to 19,067

High Success Rate on AP Calculus, Physics BC

Moving to the all-important question of success on AP exams, I can’t find any clear pattern across subject areas.

In the STEM domain, Calculus BC is the standout, with 82 percent of students earning a passing score of 3 or more. (For Calculus AB, however, the rate was 57 percent). Here are a few others at the top:

• Physics C: Mechanics (76 percent)
• Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism (71 percent)
• Computer Science (62 percent)

Meanwhile, fewer than half of students (49 percent) passed the biology and environmental-science exams.

Results for U.S. and world history were not encouraging, with 51 percent and 48 percent passing those exams, respectively. Curiously, students fared much better on the European History exam, with 64 percent earning a score of 3 or higher. As for U.S. Government and Politics? Only half of test-takers passed.

On its face, the most striking result is for the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam, where 95 percent of test-takers earned a passing score of 3 or above, and nearly three-quarters earned the highest score of 5. Results for no other exam, including other foreign languages, comes close. But the reason is that “a much higher percentage of native and heritage speakers take this exam than our other language exams,” a College Board spokeswoman explained in an email.

Last year, I offered some deeper analysis of trends in AP coursetaking over time, along with insights from College Board officials and experts in the field. As I noted in that story, subjects on the rise in the AP realm included geography, environmental science, Chinese, psychology, and world history.

To help close the participation gap for minorities and females, the College Board in December announced the AP STEM Access Program, with support from a $5 million grant from Google. Through the program, 800 public high schools are being invited to start new AP math and science courses, with an emphasis on encouraging traditionally underrepresented minority and female students who demonstrate academic potential.

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