Font Size: 
Indicator I-8 Advanced Placement Exams Taken in the Humanities
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
Back to Section I-B

Updated 11/14/2013 with data for 2010–2013.

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 the most rigorous courses regularly offered by high schools. Perception of the high value of AP courses has led the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report to use the number of AP classes offered and exams taken as metrics in their annual rankings of high schools. For this reason, the HI looks to student involvement in the AP program as one measure of advanced learning in humanities subjects at the secondary school level.

While national trend data on AP course-taking in specific subjects is not publicly available, the College Board does publish data on the number of AP exams taken annually in each subject, as well as the average scores and the demographics of those taking the tests. From 1996 to 2013, humanities exams were the most commonly taken AP exams, outstripping all other fields by a wide margin (Figure I-8a; see the Note on Advanced Placement Examination Data for a listing of the exam types included under each field heading). During this period, the number of AP exams taken in the humanities quadrupled, although the number of exams taken in other fields increased even more dramatically. Exams taken in the social sciences, for instance, increased almost tenfold.

Figure I-8a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

The rate of humanities exam-taking among high school students also increased substantially (Figure I-8b). The number of humanities exams taken per 100 students rose every year from 1996 to 2013. In the most recent year, approximately 11 exams were taken per 100 high school students, 3.5 times the rate of exam-taking in 1996.

Figure I-8b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Publicly available information does not indicate how many of the students taking the humanities exams have taken more than one test in this field (e.g., whether a student is taking a European history exam in addition to the more common English exam), or the extent to which that has contributed to the increase in AP exam-taking in the humanities. Multiple test-taking generally is on the rise: the College Board reports that 57.5% of examinees took more than one AP test in the four years from 2010 to 2013, up from the 48.8% reported from 2000 to 2003.

Looking more closely at exam-taking within the humanities field, the number of exams taken in all three humanities disciplines—English language and literature, history, and languages and literatures other than English (LOTE)—increased substantially from 1996 to 2013 (Figure I-8c). Every year since 1996, the English language and literature exams have been taken by more students than any other AP exam, humanities or otherwise. In 2013, 5.1 English exams were taken for every 100 high school students, up from 1.4 in 1996 (a 259% increase; Figure I-8d). A substantial portion of the student population also took history exams, with the number of exams taken per 100 students increasing 277% (from 1.3 to 4.7) over the 1996–2013 time period. One driver of this growth was the introduction in 2002 of the world history exam (which grew rapidly in popularity, from 20,955 tests taken the first year the exam was administered to 230,107 in 2013).

Figure I-8c, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data
Figure I-8d, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Exams in LOTE, while not taken as often as other humanities exams, are also being taken with increasing frequency. The number of such exams taken per 100 high school students rose from 0.5 to 1.2 from the mid-1990s through 2013. This increase was fueled by growth in the number of exams taken in Spanish language and literature, which offset declining test-taking in most of the other European languages and accounted for 76.7% of the LOTE tests taken in 2013.

“Success” on an AP exam is generally measured as a score of four or above on a five-point scale, since those are the scores for which many institutions of higher education grant college credit. In 2013, the mean score for all tests taken was 2.89, but the average scores for students taking English and history tests tended to be lower than the scores of students taking exams in other disciplines, both humanities and nonhumanities. Students taking the world history exam earned the lowest mean score in 2013, at 2.53, while students taking the U.S. history exam averaged a 2.77. Likewise, among those taking English exams, students taking the language test scored an average of 2.77, and students taking the literature test scored 2.81, on average. In comparison, students scored an average of 3.0 or higher on the LOTE exams.

Note on Advanced Placement Examination Data

Advanced Placement Exams Offered 1996–2013, 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 and Culture;
French Literature (discontinued after 2009);
German Language and Culture;
Italian Language (first administered in 2006, but not offered in 2010 and 2011);
Japanese Language and Culture (first administered in 2007);
Latin—Literature (discontinued after 2009);
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

While more exams are offered in the humanities than in any other field, 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 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 field encompasses a larger number of exams than the other broad fields, most of the humanities exams are taken by relatively few students (e.g., in 2013, only 6,667 students took the Latin exam, as compared to 140,006 who took the chemistry test). The high levels of humanities test-taking are largely driven by the popularity of a handful of exams offered in the field. For example, in 2013 more exams were taken in a single humanities discipline, English, than were taken in either the natural or social science fields.

Back to Content

Back to Top
Skip Navigation Links.  

View figures and graphics: