Press Release

The Humanities Retain a Substantial Role in the Nation’s High Schools


High school students continue to engage with the humanities (English, languages, and history) at a high rate, albeit with evidence of some troubling racial disparities, according to new findings from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicators.

Among the key findings:

  • In 2019, graduating seniors earned more credits in English on average than any other subject (4.5 credits per student), though math and social studies were not far behind (approximately four credits each).
  • Similar to other subjects, the average number of high school credits taken in English increased from 1990 to 2019, but the largest growth occurred in languages other than English, which increased 38% from 1990 to 2009 (from an average of 1.6 to 2.2 credits). However, that growth stalled in the subsequent decade (alongside growth in social studies coursetaking).
  • World history coursetaking increased dramatically over the past several decades. In 1990, 73% of graduating high school students took the course, but by 2019, that share increased to 94%. High school students are now almost as likely to have taken world history as U.S. history by the time they graduate (with 96% of students earning credits in the latter). The share of secondary students taking civics/government/politics has also grown, from 78% of high school graduates in 1990 to 90% in 2019. 
  • Forty-three percent of the Advanced Placement (AP) exams taken in 2020, over two million in all, were in humanities subjects. The vast majority of humanities exams were taken in English, U.S. history, or world history. 
  • The rate of humanities AP exam-taking among high school students increased substantially from 1996 to 2020, indicating that the growth in exam-taking exceeded the increase in the student population.
  • In 2020, more AP exams were taken in a history subject (893,518) than in English language and literature (869,458) for the first time in records dating back to 1996.
  • The number of history tests taken increased almost 380% from 1996 to 2020, due in part to the introduction of the world history exam in 2002. Spanish language and literature exams have also fueled substantial growth in test-taking in languages other than English.
  • AP exams taken in the humanities were among the least likely to receive a high score (a 4 or 5). While 28% of exams in the humanities were scored that high in 2019, more than 40% of the tests taken in math/computer science and 48% of exams in the arts earned those scores.
  • In 2019, the shares of humanities exams taken by Black and Native American/Alaska Native students were considerably smaller than the shares of the student population these students represented. Humanities exams taken by these students were also less likely to be scored highly than those taken by students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

The Humanities Indicators, a research initiative of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, offer policy-neutral descriptive statistics that chart trends in the field over time for policymakers, journalists, and the general public The site covers 121 topics, with over 500 graphs and tables of information, covering primary and secondary education, undergraduate and graduate education, the humanities workforce, humanities funding and research, and the humanities in American life. The Indicators are supported with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.




Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend