Assessment

Number of Students Taking AP Science Exams Surges

By Liana Loewus — September 08, 2015 3 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 last week by the College Board.

The number of students taking the physics test doubled between 2014 and 2015. The College Board, which administers the AP program, said that represents the largest annual growth in any AP course in the history of the program.

“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 an Aug. 26 webinar for reporters.

From last year to this year, the algebra-based Physics B course was split into two courses, Physics 1 and Physics 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 also pleased with the growth. “It’s certainly good news,” he said.

The new physics courses are more in line with the Next Generation Science Standards, the 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.

The percentage of female students and underrepresented minority students taking a physics test went up as well. Girls went from 34.7 percent of test-takers last year to 39.5 percent this year. Underrepresented minority students went from 17 percent of those tested to 20.5 percent.

Computer Science Growth

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

That growth is likely due to an increase in both interest and availability, said Evans.

Boys continue to dominate AP Computer Science A, making up about 78 percent of test-takers. The percentage of test-takers who were members of underrepresented minorities went up just half a percentage point, to 13 percent. State-by-state course demographic data 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 Boardis trying 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 the programming language they’d like to teach. It will debut in 2016.

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.

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.)

Demographic Breakdown

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 the 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.

Advanced Placement U.S. History—despite being at the center of a controversy this year—continues to be the most-taken test, with nearly 470,000 participants.

All students taking an AP test receive a score on a scale of 1 to 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.

For the U.S. History exam, which underwent an overhaul in 2014 (and then another more recently), about 51 percent of students scored a 3 or higher this year—about a percentage point lower than the scores before the exam changed.

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as Test-Taking Surged for AP Physics and Computer Science

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