Equity & Diversity

More Students—But Few Girls, Minorities—Took AP Computer Science Exams

By Holly Kurtz — December 19, 2014 3 min read
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In one state, Montana, no female, African-American, or Hispanic student participated, an Education Week analysis of AP data found.

Of the 34 AP subject exams administered in 2014, computer science experienced the highest annual growth rate, with the number of exams administered increasing by 26 percent since 2013 to 39,278, according to the College Board, the New York City-based organization that oversees the AP program. That one-year increase is the test’s biggest in at least a decade.

Participation rates for female, Hispanic, and black students increased at even higher rates, with the number of test-takers in these groups growing by more than one-third from 2013 to 2014.

College Board spokesperson Katherine Levin attributed a major portion of the increase to the AP STEM Access Program. The year-old initiative aims to increase female and underrepresented-minority participation in science, technology, engineering, and math through a $5 million grant from Google.

Still, this year’s large increases in participation by underrepresented groups failed to close the AP computer science participation gap.

Females remained underrepresented in 2014, comprising just 20 percent of total AP computer science test-takers, up only slightly from 19 percent last year.

The percentage of African-American test-takers also held steady at around 4 percent while the share of Hispanic participants increased slightly to about 9 percent from 8 percent. In comparison, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education calculates that, nationwide, black and Hispanic students made up 14 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of the high school class of 2014.

A geographic breakdown suggests that some states have farther to go than others when it comes to closing the AP computer science achievement gap.

Among the 49 states in which at least one student took the computer science exam, 12 had no black students participating this year.

That’s up from 11 states with no black participants in 2014, when a Georgia Institute of Technology research scientist conducted a similar analysis.

While most of the states without any African-American test-takers have very small populations of black students, in one, Mississippi, about half the members of the class of 2014 were black, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Another state with no black computer science test-takers was Kansas, where about 7 percent of the class of 2014 was black. The District of Columbia school system had the highest percentage of black test-takers (36 percent) while Maryland had the highest number (192).

Six states had no Hispanic test-takers, down from eight last year. All were states with relatively small Hispanic populations. Florida and Texas had the highest percentages of Hispanic test-takers (21 percent each). Texas had the highest number (968).

“We believe low AP Computer Science A Exam participation among traditionally underrepresented minority and female students has been an encouragement and access issue, but are hopeful to see the focus is shifting,” wrote Ms. Levin of the College Board in an email to Education Week. “Twenty-five states now allow computer science to count towards high school graduation requirements, and organizations like Code.org are helping to introduce the subject in earlier grades.” Code.org is a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes access to computer science classes.

Ms. Levin also noted that the College Board will roll out a new AP Computer Science Principles course and exam in 2016-17. While the current computer science test focuses mainly on programming, the new exam will aim to appeal to a broader range of students by focusing on such areas as using technology to solve problems creatively.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week

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