College & Workforce Readiness

More Students Taking AP Physics, Computer Science Exams

By Liana Loewus — September 03, 2015 4 min read
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Participation rates for Advanced Placement science exams—specifically physics and computer science—have risen sharply over the last year, according to data released Sept. 3 by the College Board.

The number of students taking the physics test doubled between 2014 and 2015. The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the AP program, said that represents the largest annual growth in any AP course in history. “These numbers for the AP Physics course blew my socks off and gave me hope for the country,” David Coleman, the president of the College Board, said in a webinar for reporters last week.

During that time period, the algebra-based Physics B course was split into two courses (Physics 1 and 2), so a strict comparison in participation rates is difficult. But about 93,500 students took the Physics B exam in 2014, and 174,000 took Physics 1 in 2015. Another 20,500 students took Physics 2 this year.

David L. Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, was pleased with the growth as well. “It’s certainly good news,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The new physics courses are more in line with the Next Generation Science Standards, the set of science benchmarks that 15 states and the District of Columbia have adopted, according to Evans, and the changes “open physics up to a much wider pool of potential students.”

Even so, students tended to perform less well on the Physics 1 test than all other AP exams. Evans said that performance shouldn’t be a big concern for now, though, because the test and course focus are both new this year.

The percentage of females and underrepresented minority students taking a physics test went up over the year as well. Girls went from 34.7 percent to 39.5 percent of test takers. Underrepresented minorities increased from 17 percent to 20.5 percent.

Computer Science Growth

Computer science showed the second largest annual growth in participation, up about 25 percent, from 39,200 students to 49,000 students this year.

The growth in that subject is likely due to an increase in both interest and availability, said Evans. “There’s been a lot of effort to increase kids’ awareness about coding and computer science in various ways,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more schools offer AP computer science courses.”

Boys continue to dominate AP Computer Science A, making up about 78 percent of test takers. But slightly more girls (2 percent) took the exam this year than last year. The percentage of test takers who were underrepresented minorities went up just half a percentage point, to 13 percent. More specific demographic data, broken down by state, will be available this fall.

The AP Computer Science exam has historically suffered from a diversity problem, with no female, African-American, or Hispanic students taking the test in some states over the years. The College Board is attempting to make the subject more accessible by introducing a new course, AP Computer Science Principles, that focuses on a broader range of computing skills and allows teachers to select which programming language they’d like to teach. It will debut in 2016.

Overall Numbers

The participation rates across all exams were up about 8 percent over the year as well, with 2.5 million students taking at least one AP exam in 2015. Looking back a decade, participation rates have more than doubled.

The total number of exams administered went up from 4.2 million in 2014 to 4.5 million in 2015. (Many students take several AP exams.)

Generally, across the subject areas, boys continue to outnumber girls in AP science and math courses—with biology, environmental science, and statistics being exceptions. Girls outnumber boys more consistently in language, literature, and art classes.

The percentage of test takers who were underrepresented minority students (26 percent) and from low-income families (22 percent) increased negligibly over the year.

AP U.S. History—despite being at the center of a controversy over course changes this year—continues to be the most-taken test, with nearly 470,000 participants. English Literature came in close behind with 401,000 test takers.

Score Breakdown

All students taking an AP test receive a score of between 1 and 5. About 60 percent of test takers for all exams scored a 3 or higher—well enough to be awarded college credit in some places.

Half as many African-American students as white students scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam. (See chart below, with breakdowns on percentages of students scoring 3 or higher.)

Interestingly, the Physics 1 exam, with all its participation growth, appeared to be the toughest for students, with just 39 percent of test takers scoring a 3 or higher.

As for the AP U.S. History exam, which underwent an overhaul in 2014 (and then another one more recently), about 51 percent of students scored a 3 or higher this year. Those results were just slightly lower, about a percentage point, than the scores before the exam changed.

It’s worth noting that more Advanced Placement courses and exams will be undergoing redesigns over the next couple of years.

(For data on SAT scores and participation, also released today, go to my colleague Caralee Adams’ blog post in High School & Beyond.)

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