Reading & Literacy

Trends in AP Test-Taking: Bonjour Geography, Adieu French

By Erik W. Robelen — February 10, 2012 3 min read
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Question: What do geography, Chinese language and culture, computer science, world history, and environmental science have in common?

Answer: They’re apparently becoming a lot more popular subjects in high school, at least based on one national measure.

Participation in Advanced Placement tests in these subjects has grown most rapidly—from a percentage standpoint—when comparing the number of tests taken by the graduating class of 2011 with the class of 2010. That’s based on my quick analysis of new data from the College Board’s 8th annual AP Report to the Nation, which provides an interesting window into subject preferences among schools and students.

Next question: What do language and culture offerings in French and German have in common?

Answer: Quel dommage! Interest in them appears to be waning, as measured by the same method. (Or, if not interest, at least opportunities to take those AP courses has dropped. I can’t say for sure which is true. Meanwhile, several other AP tests have recently been phased out.)

The two most popular AP subjects by far, meanwhile, are U.S. history, with 326,282 tests taken by the class of 2011, and English language and composition, at 326,145. Both have seen a pretty steady rise over the years.

(Note: The College Board statistics 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 of students takes the same test more than once.)

The new AP data show that most subjects tested saw increased participation with the class of 2011. At the same time, the actual passing rates among test-takers reveal a more mixed bag.

For example, the passing rate in environmental science dipped slightly compared with the class of 2010, from 49.3 percent to 47.6 percent. It dropped in macroeconomics from 52.1 percent to 50.2 percent.

By contrast, in European history, the trend in passing rates was upward, climbing from 61.2 percent to 64.5 percent. And in English language and composition, it rose from 58 percent to 59.2 percent.

(More technical stuff: AP tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 3 is considered a minimum passing score for predicting college success, according to the College Board.)

For the big picture on the latest AP report, check out my colleague Caralee Adams’ story. She notes that the overall passing rate was about the same for the class of 2011 compared with the prior year, rising just 0.1 percent to 56.2 percent. Still, this figure is well down from the 60.8 percent who passed in 2001.

Caralee also explains that many students who had the academic potential to succeed in AP didn’t take any of the exams, either by choice or because they attended a school that did not offer the subjects.

Of the 37 subjects tested, participation rates climbed in all but six for the class of 2011, compared with 2010 graduates. Here are some examples:

• Biology was up 7.6 percent, to 144,984
• Chinese language and culture was up 20.4 percent, to 4,126
• “Computer Science A” was up 15.2 percent, to 16,722
• English language and composition was up 11.6 percent, to 326,145
• Environmental science was up 14.8 percent, to 79,738
• “Human Geography” was up 30.3 percent, to 45,229
• “Latin: Vergil” was up 10 percent, to 3,402
• Macroeconomics was up 9.4 percent, to 73,898
• “Physics B” was up 11 percent, to 58,460
• Psychology was up 13.3 percent, to 163,284
• Statistics was up 9.7 percent, to 120,128
• World history was up 15 percent, to 132,458

Meanwhile, the areas of decline were far more limited:

• French language and culture was down 3.4 percent, to 13,558.
• German language and culture was down 3.3 percent, to 4,142.

Also, several subjects saw big declines because the tests were recently discontinued (which itself may signal a decline of interest in some cases), including “Computer Science AB,” French literature, Latin literature, and Italian language and culture.

The Italian program, however, was reinstated in the 2011-12 school year after an intensive push, and fundraising campaign, from the Italian embassy in Washington.

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