10 most (and least) popular Advanced Placement (AP) subjects

Ambitious college-bound U.S. high school students continue to have a deep aversion to math and science, according to my reading of the latest Advanced Placement (AP) test data released by the College Board on February 11, 2014. In this table I compiled of the top 10 subjects, only Calculus AB (the easier of the two math tests) makes it into the top five. Physics and computer science aren’t in the running.

10 Most Popular AP Exams for the Class of 2013

AP Subject

Total Number of Exams Taken by the Class of 2013 During High School

3+

(“qualified” in subject)

5

(top score)

1

English Language and Composition

390,754

57.6%

9.8%

2

United States History

366,641

52.1%

10.5%

3

English Literature and Composition

325,108

55%

6.8%

4

Calculus AB

223,444

57.7%

22.6%

5

United States Government and Politics

216,944

50.5%

11.1%

6

Psychology

199,222

66%

20.3%

7

World History

175,065

47.2%

8.3%

8

Biology

162,381

55.6%

12.7%

9

Statistics

141,335

56.9%

12%

10

Chemistry

107,431

54.5%

15.7%

It’s relatively hard to get a 5 in these popular subjects, except for calculus and psychology, in which more than a fifth of the test takers do. I wonder if that’s because these English and history exams are harder? Or is it that a broader range of students is attempting these “softer” subjects?

For the fun of it, I made a table of the least popular AP subjects and, not surprisingly, foreign languages dominate. I was surprised that only one science class (Physics) was among them. What really pops out, however, are the crazy high scores for Chinese. More than 70% of the test takers are getting 5’s. Wowza! Generally, the scores are higher for these less popular exams.

10 Least Popular AP Exams for the Class of 2013

 

AP Subject

Total Number of Exams Taken by the Class of 2013 During High School

3+

(“qualified” in subject)

5

(top score)

1

Japanese Language and Culture

1,477

71.9%

38.2%

2

Italian Language and Culture

1,495

68%

13.6%

3

Studio Art: 3-D Design

3,261

65.7%

10.1%

4

Latin

3,545

58.5%

12.9%

5

German Language and Culture

4,152

74.1%

18.9%

6

Chinese Language and Culture

5,684

94.6%

70.1%

7

Studio Art: Drawing

13,098

77.5%

14.8%

8

Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

14,045

67.4%

27.9%

9

French Language and Culture

14,121

73.3%

14.2%

10

Spanish Literature and Culture

15,249

68%

8.9%

I drilled a bit deeper into the College Board’s report on the Chinese language subject test  and learned that 90.8% of the test takers are “Asian, Asian-American or Pacific Islander.” Presumably, many of these students speak some Mandarin at home. For students who end up going to colleges that grant credits for high AP scores, that’s a clever way to reduce college costs. The College Board has a searchable database on what every college and university’s AP credit policy is. I was surprised to see that even Harvard will let you save tuition if you get a 5 on at least four AP tests. (Check the fine print. Harvard docks some AP tests by half.)

Overall, the College Board is very successful in getting more students to take AP exams. Despite criticism of the curriculum, there seems to be no slow down to the proliferation of AP courses. Total AP exams taken have more than doubled in the past decade to 3.2 million by the high school class of 2013. The high school class of 2003 took a total of 1.3 million exams. Even in the past year, the number of exams has increased 10 percent  from 2.9 million exams taken by the high school class of 2012.


POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON February 12, 2014

Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Post a Comment

Richard Colvin

Jill, I don’t understand your point. Four out of the top 10 AP classes are either math or science?

Jill Barshay

@Richard Colvin I suppose I was focused on the sharp drop off in AP exam numbers when you get to bio, stats and chem at the end of the top 10 list. Combined, these three STEM exams total just a bit over 400,000. By contrast, there are so many more English and history. But your point is well taken that 4 of the 10 are STEM subjects.

Maureen

A few points —

It is no surprise that kids who learned a second language at home, and who have native speakers for parents, will do well in class and on the AP exam. What is interesting, however, would be to see how many more Chinese kids there are in US high schools now than from 20 years ago, and whether that is due to recent increases in immigration from that China. And then ask why they would leave their country’s educational system, which the DoE is trying to emulate.

AP Lang and AP Lit courses prepare the kids for the SAT and ACT, and that’s a big reason to take them. Then again, there is real pleasure found in reading great literature and in understanding the world around us. And the real satisfaction from learning to write eloquently on a subject that matters to that individual. Therein lies the beginning of a creative process, to my mind.

To the DoE, STEM is all important, and it is great to have funding for teachers in the sciences and math, who have other job opportunities outside of education. Maybe you could look at the number of US college grads who have majored in physics annually for the past 20 years? And research the kinds of jobs that have awaited them? How many engineers do we have in the US? Is it 4% of our population?

Kris

Just found this blog, so I’m late to the party here, but a few more points:
1. It’s not surprising that fewer kids take STEM AP courses. For the most part, even with a 5 on a test, if you are a stem major, no college I have taught at will grant credit for a major course in college, or perhaps only a portion of the sequence if you are lucky. Many choose to take it anyway, the idea being that to succeed in the major, you really do need to know the introductory sequence well. If you are a non-science major, you will get your general ed requirement out of the way. Some intended science majors take it because it shows interest, or for the GPA bump…which leads me to point 2.
2. I think we may re-examine the motivation behind taking many tests. The tests tend to be mandatory for an AP-level course in high school. AP courses come with extra GPA weighting. I teach at a selective college — it’s not uncommon for our kids to come in with GPAs well over 4.5 because of the AP weighting. If they can handle the load, it’s worth the work because it makes them more competitive with other kids who have GPAs that are above anything most of us would conceive of.
3. Course credit once they get to college is great; do you know of any studies of how much credit is actually being awarded? I see the link above, but there is often more fine print when you get to the college (well, that won’t apply for this major, etc.). I wonder what the difference between theory and practice is. I know back in the Jurassic when I started college, I wasn’t awarded what I thought I would be, but anecdote != data.

Daniel

Funny how this year I am taking the most popular AP course in the country, and next year the least popular AP course.

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