How AP scores in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic scores

The coronavirus pandemic brought upheaval to the country's schools -- and its standardized tests. EDsmart investigated how Advanced Placement test scores in 2021 compared to scores in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, for the 10 most popular tests using data from College Board.  

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The disruption to education at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was widespread, affecting how and where students learned. The lasting result has left a serious impact on what they're learning too, according to standardized testing. Elementary students' test scores in mathematics and reading plummeted between 2020 and 2022. For older students, Advanced Placement exams and the SATs both were affected. Thousands of students had technical problems when they took an online, at-home version of the AP exams in May and June 2020. The College Board also dropped plans for an at-home choice for the SATs in 2020.

The AP program dates to 1955, established to ensure America's students did not fall behind those in the Soviet Union. The program offers college-level courses to high school students, typically capped by an exam. (A small number of courses do measure students' progress differently; for example, students studying art and design submits a portfolio.)

In all, 38 courses are given in the arts, English, history, math and computer science, the sciences, social sciences, world languages, and world cultures. College Board-administered exams are designed to measure a student's mastery of the material and are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Most schools require a score of 3 or higher for a student to qualify for college credit or to be placed in a higher-level class.

EDsmart investigated how AP scores in 2021 compared to scores in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, for the 10 most popular tests using data from College Board.

As with nearly all AP tests in general, the number of students taking the exams on this list dropped after 2019 as the pandemic closed schools and forced virtual learning on a broader scale. The average score for most AP tests on this list also fell to just below 3. The steepest drop was in psychology, down more than 12% to 2.7. Two exceptions were average scores in human geography and English language, both of which rose. The percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher also fell, again with the same two exceptions. And here, psychology also recorded the largest decline, down more than 11%.

As for the SATs, the College Board paused the testing in 2020 in March, May, and June. Even when weekend testing resumed in August of the same year, many centers remained closed or limited their capacity for safety reasons.

#10. Statistics

Student solving equation on white board in classroom

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 184,111 (16.1% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.9 (0.7% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 57.9% (down 1.8% points since 2019)

#9. Human geography

Teacher explaining geographic map in a classroom

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 211,735 (6.0% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.7 (5.5% increase since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 52.5% (up 3.4% points since 2019)

#8. Biology

Close up of young woman looking through microscope with other students

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 230,527 (11.6% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.8 (3.1% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 59.2% (down 5.5% points since 2019)

#7. Calculus AB

Close up of calculus work and hand holding pen

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 251,639 (16.3% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.8 (6.7% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 51.0% (down 7.4% points since 2019)

#6. United States government and politics

Student taking notes during lecture in the classroom

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 283,353 (10.0% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.6 (4.0% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 50.4% (down 4.7% points since 2019)

#5. Psychology

Hand holding paper cut head on white background

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 288,511 (7.3% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.7 (12.3% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 53.3% (down 11.2% points since 2019)

#4. World history

Group of students studying and reading with books in library

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 302,232 (3.5% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.7 (1.5% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 52.2% (down 3.1% points since 2019)

#3. English literature

Student with book at the front of a classroom

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 321,029 (15.5% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.5 (4.6% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 44.0% (down 5.7% points since 2019)

#2. United States history

United States

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- Total enrollment, 2021: 454,204 (8.5% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.5 (7.0% decrease since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 47.2% (down 6.5% points since 2019)

#1. English language

Teacher writing on blackboard in classroom

Undrey // Shutterstock

- Total enrollment, 2021: 518,548 (9.5% decrease since 2019)
- Average score: 2.9 (2.9% increase since 2019)
- Students scoring 3 or higher: 57.7% (up 3.4% points since 2019)

This story originally appeared on EDsmart and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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