The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

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 grant students 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.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published.