History and AP: Growing Numbers and a Different Student Population

The number of Advanced Placement history tests taken by high school students reached an unprecedented level with the graduating class of 2012. According to the College Board, students in the graduating class of 2012 took 580,360 tests in the fields of European, U.S., and world history, and more than half of those tests (300,484 in all) received a passing score of 3 or higher (out of 5).

Growth in the number of test taken in world history has been particularly remarkable over the past decade—rising from just 1,741 among the graduating class in 2002, to 153,247 among graduates last year. The number of U.S. history takers has also grown markedly—more than doubling from 168,470 in the class of 2002 to 344,938 among last year’s graduates.

In comparison, growth in the number of tests in European history has flattened out over the past few years—rising from 71,391 among graduates in 2007, to 82,175 in last year’s cohort.

The success rate on U.S. history tests has been relatively unchanged over the past decade, at right around 50 percent. In comparison, the success rate on European history tests has dipped a bit, but remains relatively high—falling from 68.2 percent in the 2002 cohort to 63.6 percent among graduates last year.

The success rate for the small number of world history test takers was initially high (73 percent in the class of 2002), but quickly fell to around a 50 percent rate similar to U.S. history. Among the 2012 graduates, the success rate for world history AP was actually a bit lower than on U.S. history tests, as 48.1 percent passed with a 3 or higher, as compared to 50.6 percent among the U.S. history test takers.

The College Board’s report also provides a useful demographic profile of the students taking advanced history courses at the high school level—a profile that is notably different from the students majoring in history at the college level.

While 54 percent of the AP history test takers in the class of 2012 were women, just 41 percent of the college students who earned history degrees in 2011 were women. Likewise, the racial profile of the high school test takers diverged from the college history population. While 42 percent of the history test takers in the 2012 class were identified as members of a racial or ethnic minority, only 25 percent of the college in history.

It seems unlikely that the numbers at the high school level represent an imminent shift in the population of history students at the college level, as the demographics of both the test takers and history majors has been relatively consistent over the past decade (particularly in the gender profile of the test takers). All of which poses an interesting question for the discipline—what happens at the college level to produce such a comparatively homogenous profile of history majors? And is there anything we can do to attract a wider array of students to history at the college level?

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  1. Gary Shea

    Although the common standard for passing AP Exams is a score of 3, 4, or 5, as an AP teacher, I also calculate a tougher standard. Passing, in this standard, means that the student earned a high enough score to get college credit at the student’s chosen college or university. My students who attend the University of Michigan or Michigan State will need a 4 or 5 to get credit. This is a much tougher standard. Usually about 85% of my students get 3, 4, or 5; but only about 65% get what they need. I suspect, but do not know, that AP pass rates would be considerably lower using this tougher standard.

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