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2011 July 14

2011 AP Exam Score Distribution

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:38
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Unofficial preliminary statistics of this year’s AP exams have been posted at 2011 AP Exam Score Distribution.  It looks like the failure rates on AP exams are once again quite high.

The exam with the most 1s is AP biology, with 35.1% 1s. Another 14.7% got 2s, making a failure rate of  49.8%.  Almost half the students taking the AP bio exam are failing it.  Either the exam is too hard or too many unprepared students are taking it.  I think that there is a little of both on this exam, as it requires memorizing huge numbers of factoids and students and schools still think of biology as the “easy” science, because it uses the least math.  This is a serious error in thinking—AP physics is much simpler conceptually with much less to memorize.

World History is the worst, failing 51.3%.  Again, I suspect that the problem is having to memorize huge numbers of factoids. Another AP test with a huge failure rate is Human Geography at 48.9%.  I’m actually surprised that this AP exam even exists, as geography is not a common college course (it is mostly a high-school course).

The exam with the lowest failure rate is Chinese Language and Culture (4.5%), though for non-heritage speakers the failure rate goes up to 21%.  The Studio Art exams have very few 1s, but a lot of 2s, for failure rates of 27.7% to 39.2%.

In general, it seems like the highest failure rates are associated with exams that require memorization and the lowest with exams that require skills.

With a median failure rate around 38%, it is clear that a lot of students taking AP exams are not prepared for them at all.  I suspect that the problem comes in part from the attempts to rate high schools by how many AP exams their students take (rather than how many they pass).  Schools have a perverse incentive to push kids to take the exams, but little incentive to make sure that they learn the material.

Where there are multiple levels of exams (Physics and Calculus) the failure rate is much higher for the easier exam (Physics B 39.6%, Physics C mechanics 27.1%, Physics C electricity and magnetism 29.5%; Calculus AB 44.2%, Calculus BC 19.5%).  Because the higher-level exam is certainly the harder one, this indicates that the high failure rates are probably not due to the exams being too difficult, but because the students are not prepared for them.

I don’t know how the AP pass rates compare to college freshman pass rates in the corresponding courses.  Universities gather such statistics, but make them hard to access.  Even faculty at the university have to jump through various bureaucratic hoops to get access to the data.



  1. I’ll agree that one of the biggest causes of failure for AP Biology is the fact that there’s just massive amounts of stuff to cover. The exam questions aren’t as nit picky as say the exam bank that comes with Campbell’s, but there is a lot of ground to cover.

    Human Geography is much more than physical geography. It’s really a mix of a whole bunch of social sciences. I would guess, though, that it’s the AP exam least likely to get you college credit. It’s the exam most commonly taken by freshmen, which is the reason many use for its high failure rate. On College Confidential, it’s considered one of the easiest AP exams.

    World History isn’t what most people think it is — many world history classes in high school are more western-civ-ish. World History actually makes you look at Africa, South America, and Asia in addition to Europe and North America. In many schools (including our local public high school), it is the traditional first AP course and is taught to sophomores. I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that students have a hard time with the course because they don’t have much prior knowledge of any of the material so there are no memory “hooks” to hang the readings/lectures on. World History also covers the longest time frame of any history course. AP Euro begins in 1500, I think. US History begins around 1600(?). World History begins with BCE dates.

    Comparisons between Studio Art and the other exams really isn’t appropriate. Studio Art students submit a portfolio. The items in the portfolio can be created at any point in time (they’re not required to have been created during the past school year, for example).

    Physics B has easier math (no calculus) than Physics C, but Physics B is a much wider curriculum (mechanics, electricity & magnetism, some optics, some thermo, and some modern) than even the two Physics C exams together.

    The College Board encourages an open access policy to AP courses. Their opinion is that if you have no failures, then you’re gatekeeping the course too much. Of course, we know that open access can cause problems, too, if unprepared students slow the class to the point that even the prepared students aren’t ready for the exam. To me, that means there has to be a balance.

    Foreign languages are another case where the exam is hard to compare with other exams. Most AP exams are the equivalent of first year college courses (intro courses). Foreign language courses are trying to place you into 3000 level courses (i.e., place you out of 2 years of college courses). Foreign language lit courses are trying to place you out of one of those 3000 level courses.

    Students regularly take the AP language exams in French, Spanish, German, and Latin after 4 or 5 years of study. I wonder how many AP Chinese students are just in the 4th or 5th year of study? My daughter says she doesn’t remember any of the AP surve questions that would cover that.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2011 July 14 @ 10:11 | Reply

    • I agree that having a 0% failure rate probably indicates too much gate keeping, but a 50% failure rate almost certainly means that too many unprepared students are dragging down the level of the course.

      The AP bio test is being fixed (for 2012–13, not 2011–12), so we can hope that pass rates go up as the test and courses focus more on the important concepts of biology and a little less on nit-picky details. Biology will always be a fact-driven science, rather a model-driven science, so there will always be too many facts to learn.

      Although Physics B covers a wider range of topics than the Physics C tests, I think that the higher failure rate is due to the lower level of the students and not the breadth of the exam. I have no data to prove that assertion, though. I supposed that the College Board could check it, by computing a subscore of the Physics B exam for just mechanics, or just electricity and magnetism. I suspect that the subscores would look much like the whole Physics B scores—that the problem is students not understanding any physics, rather than them understanding just a subset.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 14 @ 11:23 | Reply

  2. In my school only native born chinese speakers and fairly new immigrants are allowed to take Chinese AP. Same is true for Spanish. We usually do well in AP Calculus with close to 90% passing although this year we were much lower.

    Comment by rantingwoman — 2011 July 14 @ 14:52 | Reply

    • My son plans to take the AP Spanish exam next year. Although he is not a native speaker and has a slight Gringo accent, he was doing as well on the Spanish 3 grammar tests as students who were native speakers but had not had much instruction in Spanish grammar.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 14 @ 15:24 | Reply

      • You can definitely succeed on the Spanish exam without a perfect accent. My daughter scored well and speaks Spanish with a noticeable French accent.

        AP Spanish is one of the tests where sustained practice in the types of free response questions on the exam will noticeably improve your score. For example, there’s a section that’s a conversation. You have 20-30 seconds each time it’s your turn to talk. You’re supposed to fill your time. That can be hard if you’re just responding to a prompt that would normally just require a short answer (like, “Hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?”). It’s *VERY* different than talking to someone in real life.

        It’s also very common for the AP Spanish exam to run long, partly due to the fact that many schools experience problems with the recording devices or have a shortage of recording devices.

        There’s much talk about whether students are actually biliterate or just bilingual. Many kids in the US who are heritage speakers don’t actually learn to read and write their heritage language and they have the same types of grammar problems that kids who speak English natively are (hopefully) getting drilled out of them in English class. (Actually, the writing center at the local community college has a whole handout on things its okay to say in Oklahoma, but that you should write differently in a formal assignment. So much for those things getting “fixed” in high school.) So, kids who have good foreign language instruction may be ahead of heritage learners in some areas.

        Comment by Jo in OKC — 2011 July 17 @ 14:57 | Reply

        • Thanks for the suggestion about practicing AP-style prompt and reply—I’ll make sure my son does some before the exam next year (assuming that his class doesn’t do that already).

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 18 @ 15:54 | Reply

  3. I remember when I was in High School that I only took two AP tests. I did, however, take four AP classes. I took the AP U.S. History test my junior year, passing with a 3, and the AP Calculus test my senior year, passing with a 4. I also took AP Government and AP Economics. I knew a lot of students that took practically every AP class and test they could possibly take. I looked at how hard they were working to study for all of them, and I thought it was a bit insane. It just wasn’t for me.

    I don’t know if there is a huge push from parents to take AP courses and tests. I know that my parents were happy to let me choose my curriculum in High School. For some subjects, like English and Social Studies, we had three levels of the same course: Remedial, Standard, and Honors/AP. For some subjects, like the Sciences, there were a variety of courses available. Of course, there were some that you took in order, like Mathematics and Foreign Languages. When it came to the sciences, I was more interested in taking different courses than taking higher level courses, so I ended up taking a year of earth science, a year of chemistry, a year and a half of biology, environmental science, and a year of physics, but none of them were AP. My parents were happy to let me do what I liked, as long as I was behaving and doing well, which I was.

    By the time I took AP Government and Economics, I was in my senior year, and I was already pretty sure where I was going to be attending college. I knew that those classes weren’t on the list of eligible AP tests for college credit, so I didn’t bother taking the test. I took the course because I didn’t want to take the standard level of government and economics that was offered. My parents were never pushy about classes or going to college. It was strange for me when I entered graduate school to discover that a lot of students were there getting a PhD because their parents expected it from them. I can imagine with those types of parents, there could be a large push to get your children to take AP classes and to take AP tests. I also know that if I was forced to take those extra two tests, I probably wouldn’t have tried very hard to do well, as it wasn’t something I was interesting in doing. It was the same with my GRE scores. I took the GRE my last year of college. At the time, I wasn’t really interested in graduate school or doing anything else, so I didn’t really bother studying or practicing for it, so I really didn’t do that well. Of course, when I did decide to go back, I put a lot more effort into it because it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to get credit for History and Calculus in college, so I put the effort into it.

    I suppose it’s difficult to actually determine why the failure rates are high, but I wouldn’t leave lack of motivation on the students part off of that list of possibilities.

    Comment by Grant — 2011 July 18 @ 01:56 | Reply

    • Lack of motivation is indeed one of the possible explanations. Inadequate prior background is another.

      One explanation popular with AP teachers is that the College Board deliberate curves their tests so that half the students fail. Personally, I don’t believe that one—the official College Board explanation that they set the grades using a regression model to be predictive of college grades seems much more likely.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 18 @ 08:41 | Reply

  4. The Chinese AP exam is typically taken by kids who have gone to Saturday Chinese school for years. Although many are “heritage” kids, not all speak Chinese at home. My kids (and we are not “heritage”) go to such a school and will probably aim for that AP test eventually. Our school has an AP study group after the regular classes, to help prepare the kids.

    Comment by BKM — 2011 July 19 @ 05:20 | Reply

    • OF the foreign languages, it seems that only Chinese has a very high pass rate. Perhaps it is as you say, that the language is learned over many years, starting young, while for the other languages people make the mistake of waiting until high school and trying to learn the language in only 4 years.

      Certainly in places where multilingualism is a major part of the culture, people starting learning multiple languages from infancy.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 19 @ 08:03 | Reply

  5. Thought you might find the following proposal regarding computer science and foreign language requirements for UC interesting:

    Comment by Yves — 2011 July 25 @ 10:08 | Reply

    • Thanks, I commented on the post. Personally, I think that replacing an English class with computer programming would be more productive than replacing a foreign language class.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 25 @ 10:19 | Reply

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  8. You should do some basic fact checking before making sweeping generalizations. You should not have been surprised that an AP Geography text exists. In fact, geography is a major academic discipline, on par with history, geology, or sociology. See for example the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment or Cambridge University’s Department of Geography.

    Comment by Mark Bjelland — 2012 March 8 @ 18:35 | Reply

    • I realize that geography is a discipline, but I would argue that it is nowhere near as common a college course as history, geology, or sociology. Note that neither geology nor sociology has an AP exam.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 March 8 @ 20:32 | Reply

  9. there is certainly need for improvement in the AP tests students must be adequately taught so that they are able to perform well in these exams.

    Comment by edwin — 2012 March 10 @ 00:43 | Reply

  10. AP Physics B is significantly more difficult than AP Biology. FYI. Don’t make pretentious remarks about courses you appear to know very little about. Physics requires insane manipulations of formulas and lots of rigorous conceptual work.

    Comment by Xan — 2012 May 1 @ 18:52 | Reply

    • I am teaching AP Physics C this year, and the manipulation of formulas in physics is not “insane”—it is quite clean and elegant. Rigorous conceptual work and clear thinking is needed, but not a lot of memorization. The number of vocabulary words, formulas, and fundamental ideas is quite small, though a lot can be done from this small base. AP Bio, on the other hand, has a much messier and less organized underlying science, which requires a lot more memory work.

      I am not claiming that one is universally easier or more difficult than the other—different people have different strengths. Biology requires a lot more memory work, and physics requires a lot more multi-step mathematical problem solving. My own strengths make the math much easier than the memory work.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 May 1 @ 23:50 | Reply

  11. I took AP Computer Science last year as a sophomore and made a 5. Piece of cake for me. Then again, I’ve been tinkering with programming since I was 12, and I started learning seriously when I was about 13 or 14. I will also be taking the APUSH, AP English Language, and AP Stat exams in the next two weeks. I’m not too worried about Stat, but US History and English might be a little tough.

    Personally, I think the reason for such high failure rates on many of the exams is a combination of the students and teachers. More students think, “Oh, history, that’s an easy subject!” and so they take AP history subjects. Additionally, you have teachers (the AP World History teacher at my school is notorious for this) that are making the class actually quite easy, when it should actually be challenging. Students get fooled into thinking AP exams are easy, and so they take the exams, only to find they have been ill-prepared either by their own laziness or by the poor ability of the teacher. The only reason I made a 5 on the AP CS is because I already knew how to program. The teacher didn’t actually teach the class anything, and I know a bunch of kids that went in, bubbled random answers, and drew pretty pictures all over the free response because they couldn’t program a single line of code if their lives depended on it. Yet they were all making A’s and B’s in the class. Additionally, people think math is hard, and so they avoid exams like Statistics and Calculus like the plague, so only the smart kids take them, thereby skewing the scoring distribution. I think there needs to be some sort of policy that highly recommends against taking an AP exam for a class unless you have at least a B average, and will not allow you to take one unless you have a passing average. It certainly wouldn’t solve problems, but it might decrease the number of failures on AP World History from 50% to more like 30 or 40%. The other problem lies with the teachers. If teachers are getting audited by College Board to ensure that their courses are meeting expectations, those audits are not very thorough. I’ve seen teachers, like my English teacher, who are incredible, but then I’ve seen teachers, like my Computer Science teacher, who are horrible teachers. Schools should be looking at failure rates on these exams and comparing them to national averages, and investigating the teacher if necessary. Whether or not that happens, I don’t know, but having lousy teachers is not only detrimental to the students, but to the entire AP program.

    Comment by Jacob — 2012 May 8 @ 18:00 | Reply

    • Best AP comment I have ever read! Thank you for your insights; they were very helpful to me

      — Bravo, Jacob!

      P.S. I am a new-ish French AP teacher, trying to understand the nuances of the College Board’s system.

      Comment by Leigh Anne — 2013 February 9 @ 11:11 | Reply

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  15. 2012 AP Score distributions are being published/organized at .

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  17. I took APUSH and got a 4. I you have a teacher who drives you do read the text and memeorize the facts you can do well on the test. It isnt just memorizing,my teacher also had us do a lot of analysis questions and discussions and essay writing. We also took a practice test for each chapter. All this in 1 semester, not two as in most APUSH classes.

    Comment by Clay Hancock — 2012 September 20 @ 10:21 | Reply

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