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AP Program Results—A Decade of Expanded Access, Student Success

Performance Rate Exceeds the Rate of Participation Over the Past Decade

Over the past 10 years, the number of U.S. public high school graduates who took an AP® Exam during high school increased by 43%. During the same period, the number of U.S. public high school graduates who scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP Exam has increased by 52%. These data come from the Class of 2020 AP Program Report Results. 

1,213,760 (38.3%) U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2020 took at least one AP Exam, up from 847,181 (27.1%) in the class of 2010. 772,005 (24.4%) U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2020 scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP Exam, up from 507,028 (16.2%) in the class of 2010.

Despite the global impact of the covid-19 pandemic, 1.21 million students in the class of 2020 took 4.1 million exams, a slight decrease from the class of 2019, where 1.24 million students took 4.26 million exams.

According to an independent report published by the American Enterprise Institute: “AP might be the single happiest education story of the century. AP’s dramatic growth has made it an indispensable part of public education, but the real feat has been maintaining quality at scale. AP programs have substantially increased access to advanced coursework for all public school students, and the College Board has made that access possible by taking concrete steps to maintain program quality and increase access to underserved students. The challenges and participation gaps that critics highlight remain, but they stem from the longstanding legacy of American public education, not from the rapidly expanding upstart that’s improving it.”

State Highlights: Connecticut Leads the Nation in Performance

For the first time, Connecticut led the nation this year with 34.5% of high school graduates earning a score of 3 or more on an AP Exam. Connecticut included AP in its accountability plan and provides students with a strong college-going culture and frequent messaging about the importance of challenging themselves academically. In addition, Connecticut fully covers AP Exam fees for low-income students and has a universal AP credit policy at four state universities and 12 community colleges. 

Top 10 States with the Highest Percentage of 2020 Public High School Graduates Scoring a 3 or Higher on an AP Exam During High School: 

  1. Connecticut: 34.5
  2. Florida: 34.2
  3. Massachusetts: 34.0
  4. California: 32.4
  5. New York: 31.6
  6. Maryland: 31.5
  7. New Jersey: 31.3
  8. Colorado: 29.0
  9. Illinois: 29.0
  10. Virginia: 28.6

Expanding Access to AP and Closing the Equity Gap

Over the past few decades, access to AP has expanded for historically underrepresented students. College Board has worked closely with educators and policymakers across the country to close the equity gap in AP, giving more students the chance to experience the benefits of challenging coursework, including the opportunity to earn college credit. 

In 2010, low-income students made up 20.6% of the AP cohort population, whereas in 2020, low-income students made up 32.1% of the AP cohort population. This growth is the direct result of increased outreach to students nationwide. In 2020, 24% of students taking AP Exams were from low-income families, compared to 9% of students in 2003, this growth was achieved with no decrease in the rate of students earning scores of 3 or higher on AP Exams.

In the high school class of 2020, Hispanic students were more likely than white students both to take AP courses and AP Exams in high school and to earn at least one credit-qualifying AP Exam score of 3 or higher. While Hispanic students were 24.7% of the overall high school class of 2020, they were 26.6% of the AP Exam-taker population, and 24.8% of the AP Exam-taker population who earned scores of 3 or higher. Hispanic students represented the largest population of AP participants in New Mexico (61% of AP students), Texas (50%), California (48%), and Nevada (40%).

Changing the Invitation to Computer Science

The growth of AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) illustrates how AP is reaching previously underrepresented communities. College Board has placed an emphasis on encouraging more students from all backgrounds to study STEM in high school and college, and to ultimately pursue STEM careers. In 2016, College Board, with significant support from the National Science Foundation, launched AP CSP and changed the invitation to computer science education. 

The first year of AP Computer Science Principles in 2016-17 attracted more students than any other AP course debut, and participation is on the rise. In 2020, more than 114,000 students took the AP CSP Exam—more than double the number of exam takers in the course’s first year, and a 21% increase over the previous year. In 2020, 38,672 women took the AP CSP Exam, nearly three times the number who took the AP CSP Exam in 2017. 

According to research released in December 2020, students who take AP CSP in high school are more than 3 times as likely to major in computer science in college, compared to similar students who did not take AP CSP. Differences are similarly large for female, Black, Hispanic, and first-generation college students. In fact, in high schools that offered AP CSP over three years, Black students who took AP CSP then majored in computer science at a higher rate (nearly 20%) than students from any other racial/ethnic group. 

Bipartisan Efforts to Support AP Students

In 2020, a total of 29 states and the District of Columbia recognized the importance of providing AP access to low-income students by supplying the financial support they need. State funding plays a critical role in expanding AP opportunities to serve low-income students. During the College Board’s 2020 AP Exam administration, 24% of all U.S. AP Exam takers were low-income students, taking over 1 million AP Exams. Over the last decade, the share of domestic AP Exams taken by low-income students increased by more than 7 percentage points over 2010 levels—narrowing equity gaps while still growing overall domestic exam volume by 47%. 

As of fall 2020, 31 states have implemented statewide or systemwide AP credit policies, which typically require all public higher education institutions to award credit for AP Exam scores of 3 or higher. Adoption at the state level has more than doubled over the past five years. 

More AP Students are Engaging in Project Based Learning 

Students are increasingly participating in Project Based Learning (PBL) offerings in Advanced Placement, particularly the AP Capstone Diploma™ program courses: AP Seminar and AP Research. AP Seminar and AP Research are designed to measure teamwork, collaboration, and research skills that are critical to academic and career success. Unlike traditional AP subject exams with a single end-of-year assessment, AP Seminar and AP Research assessments are project based and evaluate skills mastery through group projects, presentations, and individual essays completed throughout the year. Instead of focusing on one specific academic discipline, AP Seminar and AP Research are interdisciplinary: students are empowered to create research projects based on topics of personal interest and they are assessed on the critical thinking, research, collaboration, time management, and presentation skills needed to complete their projects. 

Research Highlights the Benefits of Project Based Learning

In a Knowledge in Action (KIA) study funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, researchers found that after one year of teachers’ KIA experience, among students who took an AP U.S. Government and Politics or AP Environmental Science Exam, KIA students outperformed non-KIA students by 8 percentage points on a measure describing whether they would earn a qualifying score. These gains increased to an estimated 10 percentage points in teachers' second year of using PBL curricula and pedagogy. These gains were similarly large within both the multiple-choice and free-response sections of the AP Exams. 

Supporting AP Students and Educators During the Covid-19 Pandemic 

Responding to the covid-19 pandemic, the AP Program has developed new, flexible solutions to support students and educators. This school year, AP has created free, online AP Daily videos and practice questions for each topic in each AP course. Millions of students have watched the AP Daily videos through a College Board portal, with millions more accessing them through YouTube. The AP Program recently announced flexible plans for the spring AP Exam administration for those students who choose to test and have the opportunity to earn college credit. Learn more about the upcoming 2021 AP Exam administration.

Download the 2020 Reports