AP U.S. History Exam: 2021 Results

The following data reflect the 399,676 students worldwide who took either the paper or the digital AP U.S. History Exam in May. Data from students who tested in June are not yet available.

AP U.S. History score distributions, 2019 vs. 2021

The following table enables comparisons of student performance in 2021 to student performance on the comparable full-length exam prior to the covid-19 pandemic.

AP Score 2019 2021
5 12% 11%
4 18% 16%
3 24% 21%
2 22% 22%
1 24% 30%

Of these 399,676 students, 6 students achieved a perfect score from all professors/readers on all free-response questions and correctly answered every multiple-choice question, resulting in the rare and impressive feat of earning all 140 of 140 points possible on an AP U.S. History Exam.

It’s also important to honor the work of students who did not qualify for a score of 3+, but who nonetheless developed basic understandings and skills in the course. As a reminder, the most recent research on students who achieve a score of 2 in AP U.S. History found that they proceed to earn higher grades when taking the course in college than students with the same high school GPA, SAT score, race, and gender. And these outcomes are stronger for AP U.S. History students who receive a 2 than they are for students taking any other non-STEM AP subject.

The May 6 In-School Paper Exam

The largest exam date for AP U.S. History was May 6, so the following information is specific to the exam version administered on that date.

As usual, students scored significantly higher on the multiple-choice section than on the free-response questions.

Multiple-choice section:

  • Course Periods/Units:
    • AP U.S. History students’ mastery of Period 6 (1865–1898) is incredible. 34% of students achieved perfect scores on this period, the highest multiple-choice performance I’ve seen in any subject so far this year.
    • Students scored lowest, overall, on questions about Period 7 (1890–1945), with 9% of students earning perfect scores on this period.
  • Historical Thinking Skills:
    • Students scored impressively high on multiple-choice questions related to the skill of contextualization; 41% of students answered most or all of such questions correctly.
    • The most challenging skill for students in the multiple-choice section was Skill 5: Making Connections, which involves identifying patterns of causation, continuity, and change. 15% of students answered most or all of such questions correctly.

    Free-response section:

    Short Answer Questions

    • The highest performance in the free-response section was on Short Answer Question #2 about women and the World War II. 21% of AP U.S. History students achieved perfect scores as they charted developments in women’s history from 1900–1941 and from 1944–1970.
    • The lowest performance within this year’s AP U.S. History Exam was among the students who chose Short Answer Question #3 about American Indian relations with the United States from 1776–1815 and 1815–1848. 3% of students who chose this question earned perfect scores on it and 29% received 0 points.

    Document-Based Question (DBQ)–Economic Growth from 1940–1970

    • 79% of students earned the thesis point
    • 52% of students earned the contextualization point
    • Evidence: 16% of students earned all 3 evidence points; 37% earned 2 points; 40% earned 1 point; 7% earned 0 points
    • Analysis & Reasoning: 5% earned 2 points; 29% earned 1 point; 66% earned 0 points.

    Long Essay Question

  • The most popular long essay topic was “Trans-Atlantic voyages from 1491–1607,” chosen by 51% of students; students who chose this topic collectively earned a higher average score on it than students who chose either of the other 2 topics. 74% of these students earned the thesis point.
  • The second most popular topic was “international conflicts from 1898–1830,” chosen by 39% of students. 63% of these students earned the thesis point.
  • Relatively few students (10%) chose “reform activity from 1800–1848,” and many of those who did struggled to provide historical evidence or to generate a thesis. 49% of these students earned the thesis point.

The May 19 Digital Exams

To support student access, different testing modes—paper and digital—were essential. To protect exam security, many different exam versions were necessary. Accordingly, to provide students with similar opportunities for success regardless of which version they took, each version of the exam had to be analyzed separately by psychometricians to identify its unique difficulty level so that standards for scores of 3, 4, and 5 could then be separately identified for each exam version. Analyses focused on:

  • Differences in the testing mode (paper or digital). For sections of the exam that proved easier to take digitally, the digital versions require more points for each AP score. For sections of the exam that proved easier to take on paper, the paper exam requires more points for each AP score.
  • Differences in the difficulty of specific questions. When exam questions prove easier, more points are required for each AP score, and when exam questions prove more difficult, fewer points are required on one version than another.
  • Differences in versions of the exam. The net result for this year’s AP U.S. History Exams is that out of 140 points possible, most of the digital versions were more difficult than the paper version, and a few of the digital versions were easier than the paper version. As a result:
    • On the easiest digital version, a student needed to earn 3 more points to receive an AP score of 3 or higher than students who took the paper version.
    • On the hardest digital version, a student needed to earn 10 fewer points to receive an AP score of 3 or higher than students who took the paper version.