Taking an AP class this year? You might be wondering about average AP scores or what good AP scores are for certain classes. Or if you are thinking about taking AP exams in the future, you might want to know which exams have the highest passing rates.
In this post, we will break down the average score for each AP test, as well as the average passing rate. We will also show you how to interpret this info and how to use it to make decisions about your schedule.
Average AP Score by Test
Instead of giving you an overall average score for all AP tests, we will show you the average score for every AP exam. We break it down by test because every AP test is different. It's important to know the average score for whichever test you are taking or thinking about taking.
Additionally, we’ll explain how--and why--the average AP scores look a little different in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, AP exams were offered online in May 2020. The number of free response questions was reduced for 2020 AP exams as well, which shortened overall AP exam length. These changes inevitably impacted students’ AP scores. It’s important to be mindful of this context as you consider which AP exams you want to take and set goals for your AP scoring.
We will also explore how you can use this info—and learn why the exams with the highest passing rates are not the easiest!
But first, the data. The table below contains the national average scores for each AP exam from 2021. Remember that AP exams are scored from 1 to 5, with 3 and higher considered passing rates.
We have sorted the exams from highest average score to lowest. Take a look:
|Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)||4.09|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)||3.92|
|Physics C: Mechanics||3.87|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)||3.86|
|Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism||3.68|
|Art and Design: Drawing||3.59|
|French Language and Culture (Total Group)||3.57|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.53|
|Art and Design: 2-D Design||3.49|
|German Language and Culture (Total Group)||3.49|
|French Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.40|
|Gov. and Politics - Comparative||3.34|
|Computer Science A||3.26|
|Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)||3.24|
|German Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.19|
|Art and Design: 3-D Design||3.18|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.17|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.16|
|Computer Science Principles||3.09|
|Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)||3.06|
|English Language and Composition||2.96|
|Gov. and Politics - United States||2.85|
|English Literature and Composition||2.84|
|United States History||2.83|
Via College Board. For language rates, "Total Group" includes all students, while "Standard Group" includes only those students who didn't indicate they speak this language at home or spent more than four weeks studying it abroad. Check out the link for a complete distribution of scores for each AP exam.
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One very important fact to note is that high average scores don't correspond to the easiest exams! Chinese, Japanese, Physics, Spanish Language, and Calculus BC are the AP tests with the highest average scores, but they are all known to be quite difficult. Also note that native speakers, or students with experience living abroad, tend to take the AP language exams, which inflates their average scores (for the average of those who learned in a classroom, check the "Standard" score).
Furthermore, some of the tests with the lowest averages are often regarded as some of the easiest APs—Human Geography, Environmental Science, and US Government. So why are their passing rates so low? This is because freshmen and sophomores might take these as their first-ever AP classes. Even though the content is easier than, say, Calculus, all AP exams are tough and could be hard for a younger student to do well on. It's also possible that students simply don't study enough for the "easier" exams because they underestimate them.
Moreover, the numbers show that, across the board, fewer students actually took AP exams in 2020 than they did in the previous year. This reduced number of AP test takers was due to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. But while fewer students took the AP exams in 2020, the percentage of students passing (earning a 3 or higher) actually increased in many AP courses. This is likely because students who felt less confident in their ability to pass AP exams opted out of taking the exams in 2020.
So what do the strange AP testing circumstances of 2020 mean for you? In general, it’s best to look at the average score numbers from 2020 and compare them with numbers from previous years. Doing this will give you a better idea of how the score distributions typically fall under normal circumstances and help you get a clearer picture of the difficulty levels of the AP exams you want to take.
All AP tests are difficult, even if some are easier than others.
To sum up, the average score can say more about the students taking the exam than the exam itself. Don't sign up for BC Calculus just because the average score is super high. And by the same token, don't avoid AP Environmental Science because the average score is relatively low. Focus on your own strengths and interests when signing up for AP classes!
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What's a Good AP Score?
Beyond the basic averages, it's helpful to have some context about what a "good" AP score is. A score of 3 or higher is generally considered good, because that means you passed the exam! A 4 is considered very good, and a 5 is especially impressive since it is the highest score.
Also keep in mind that every college sets its own policy about AP credit. Some schools only give credit for scores of 4 or 5. Check the AP credit database to find out the AP credit policy for schools you're interested in.
But with that in mind, let's look at which 2021 AP exams have the highest passing rates—a.k.a. rates of scores over 3. We also note the percentage of students who get a 5, the highest score.
|Exam Name||Passing Rate (3+)||5 Rate|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)||88%||57%|
|Art and Design: Drawing||87%||14%|
|Art and Design: 2-D Design||87%||10%|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Standard Group)||84.2%*||17%*|
|French Language and Culture (Standard Group)||80.9%*||15.7%*|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)||80%||17%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)||74%||47%|
|Physics C: Mechanics||73%||23%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)||73%||21%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)||72.2%*||11.1%*|
|Gov. and Politics - Comparative||72%||17%|
|Art and Design: 3-D Design||72%||7%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||71.4%*||23.6%*|
|French Language and Culture (Total Group)||71%||13%|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||70.9%*||23.8%*|
|Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism||70%||33%|
|German Language and Culture (Standard Group)||67.9%*||11.8%*|
|Computer Science A||67%||25%|
|Computer Science Principles||67%||13%|
|German Language and Culture (Total Group)||65%||18%|
|English Language and Composition||57%||8%|
|Gov. and Politics - United States||49%||11%|
|United States History||48%||11%|
|English Literature and Composition||44%||5%|
Source: College Board. For language rates, "Total" includes all students, while "Standard" includes only those students who didn't indicate they speak this language at home or spent more than four weeks studying it abroad.
*These scores are based on score distribution data from 2020 AP tests. Preliminary data on these AP test score distributions is not yet available for 2021.
Again, note that some of the toughest exams—like Chinese and Physics C: Mechanics—have very high passing rates. Notice also the exams with very low 5 rates (below 10%), including Physics 1, English Literature, and Biology. It will look especially impressive if you can earn a 5 on these tests!
So Which AP Classes Should You Take?
The goal of taking an AP class is to get a good grade in it and also pass the AP test. Doing both of these things will show colleges that you can handle college-level material, and scoring high enough on the AP test can help you get college credit. You want to take AP classes you think you'll do well in. However, be careful about signing up for exams based on their average scores alone.
As we saw above, some of the toughest exams (like Physics, AB and BC Calculus, and many of the foreign languages) have the highest passing rates, and some of the easiest exams (like Environmental Science and Human Geography) have the lowest passing rates. This means you shouldn't sign up for AP classes based on just their passing rates.
Do some research before signing up for an AP class and make sure it's the right fit for you. Ask older classmates how difficult they've found certain AP classes. Also, think about your own academic strengths and the classes you enjoy the most. If you love math and have always been good at it, you can probably score well on an AP Calculus exam even though they're known for being difficult.
Finally, note that these are the national averages. The passing rates for different subjects could be very different at your school. If you want to find out the passing rates for these classes at your school, talk to your guidance counselor and they can help you find that info. For example, some teachers have passing rates for their AP classes above 90%. If you have a teacher like that at your school, and they teach an AP subject you are interested in, you will likely have a very high chance of passing.
One last word of advice: check out our scoring guide to see how AP scores are calculated to help you develop a target raw score to help you pass. Understanding how the exam is scored is a very important step in preparing for AP tests.
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Get tips on the SAT from our 1600 Full Scorer—you can also put the same techniques to use when studying for AP exams, especially the multiple choice sections!
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.