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Indicator I-8 Advanced Placement Exams Taken in the Humanities
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Updated (8/5/2010).

See the
Note on Advanced Placement Examination Data.

AP courses, which can count for college credit when accompanied by a passing score on an AP exam, are acknowledged to be the most rigorous courses regularly offered by high schools, and schools are under increasing pressure to expand their offerings of such classes. The growing emphasis on AP courses has extended so far that Newsweek magazine produces a ranking of high schools solely on the basis of the proportion of graduating seniors taking AP exams.

Although national long-term trend data on AP course-taking that can be broken out by subject are not publicly available, the College Board, the body responsible for developing and administering the AP examination program, does publish data as to the number of AP exams taken annually in different subjects. This information reveals how students are apportioning their time and effort with respect to college-preparatory humanities education.

From 1996 to 2009, humanities exams were the most commonly taken AP exams, outstripping social science exams, the next most frequently taken type, by a wide margin (Figure I-8a; see the Note on Advanced Placement Examination Data for a listing of the exam types included under the heading of “humanities” and other broad subject areas, as well as an analysis demonstrating that the high levels of humanities exam-taking noted here are not merely a function of the large variety of exams offered in humanities relative to other subject areas). During this period, growth in humanities test-taking was also significant, with the number of AP exams taken in the humanities more than tripling. Not only the absolute number of exams taken but also per capita exam-taking rose substantially over time among high school students. The number of humanities exams taken per 100 students rose every year during this span of years. In 2009, 8.8 such exams were taken per 100 high school students, 2.8 times more exams than in 1996 (Figure I-8b). While increases were observed in every broad subject area, the rise was most pronounced in the case of humanities exams. Average annual growth in the humanities test-taking rate over the time period was at least twice as great as that for every other subject area in which AP exams were offered.

Figure 1-8a, Full Size
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Figure 1-8b, Full Size
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Regrettably, publicly available data reveal nothing about the distribution of test-taking. Because students can take multiple tests, the proportion of observed gains attributable to an increased number of students taking humanities tests (rather than high achievers in the humanities opting to take additional tests, e.g., a European history exam in addition to the usual English exam) is unknown. Future collaboration between the Humanities Indicators Project and the College Board will perhaps yield data that can answer the important question of whether increasing numbers of students are engaged in rigorous humanities education or whether the United States is instead experiencing a growing concentration of humanities expertise in a relatively small number of students.

Looking more closely at exam-taking within the humanities, all three types of humanities AP exams — English language and literature, history, and LOTE — have shown increases between 1996 and 2009 in the number of tests taken (Figure I-8c and Figure I-8d). Every year since 1996, more students have taken the English than any other exam, humanities or otherwise. In 2009, 4.0 English exams were taken for every 100 high school students, up from 1.4 in 1996 (a 186% increase). Students were also more likely to take history exams, with the number of exams per student almost tripling between 1996 and 2009. One driver of this growth is the popularity of the newly introduced world history exam (the number of world history tests taken rose from approximately 21,000 in 2002, the year the exam was first offered, to over 140,000 in 2009).

Exams in LOTE, while not taken nearly as commonly as other humanities exams, are also being taken with increasing frequency. The number of such exams taken per 100 high school students rose from 0.47 to 1.0 between the mid-1990s and 2009. This increase has been fuelled by growth in the number of exams taken in Spanish and the relatively new Chinese and Japanese exams (introduced in 2007), which has offset declining test-taking in most other languages.

Figure 1-8c, Full Size
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Figure 1-8d, Full Size
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Note on Language Course Enrollment Data

School enrollments refer to students, while language course enrollments refer to class registrations. The collector of the data on which this indicator is based assumes that a one-to-one relationship exists between these units—that is, each student is taking only one language course—although this is not always the case. However, multiple course registrations are a rare enough phenomenon that the data collector feels it is appropriate to equate school enrollments with course enrollments for the purpose of its calculations.

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Note on Advanced Placement Examination Data

Advanced Placement Exams Offered 1996–2009, by Broad Subject Area

“Humanities” encompasses exams in the areas of

English Language and Literature
English Language/Composition;
English Literature/Composition;
Art History;
European History;
U.S. History;
World History (first administered in 2002);
Languages and Literatures Other than English
Chinese Language and Culture (first administered in 2007);
French Language;
French Literature;
German Language;
Italian Language (first administered in 2006);
Japanese Language and Culture (first administered in 2007);
Spanish Language; and
Spanish Literature.

“Math and Computer Science” encompasses exams in the areas of

Computer Science; and
Statistics (first administered in 1997).

“Natural Sciences” encompasses exams in the areas of

Environmental Science (first administered in 1998); and

“Social Sciences” encompasses exams in the areas of

Government and Politics (U.S. and Comparative);
Human Geography (first administered in 2001); and

As the above inventory reveals, more exams are offered in the humanities than in any other field. While this disparity must be considered as a possible cause of the high levels of AP test-taking in the humanities described here, the data reveal that the level of test-taking in a field cannot be attributed solely to the extent of the exam offerings in that field.

For example, in 1996, although the number of exams offered in the natural sciences was equal to that offered in the social sciences, considerably more exams were taken in the natural sciences. However, by 2005 the number taken in each field was similar, a fact attributable not to a dramatic expansion of offerings in the social sciences, but instead to a large increase in the number of students taking a single exam, U.S. government and politics, which represented no less than 40% of all social science tests taken in any given year.

Even though the humanities encompasses a larger number of exams than either the natural or social sciences, most of the humanities exams are taken by relatively few students (e.g., in 2005, only 3,530 students took the Latin literature exam, while close to 80,000 took the chemistry test). The high levels of humanities test-taking are largely driven by the popularity of a handful of the exams offered in the field: by a substantial margin, more exams are taken in a single humanities subject, English, than are taken in either the natural or social science fields.

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