Curriculum

Computer Science Courses Are on the Rise—But Girls Are Still Half as Likely to Take It

By Alyson Klein — November 01, 2023 4 min read
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Schools expanded the availability of foundational computer science classes this year at a faster clip than at any other time in the past five years, but stubborn gaps in access to those courses persist, concludes Code.org’s annual report on the state of computer science education.

Overall, 57.5 percent of high schools offer foundational computer science courses, a 4.5 percentage point jump over last year, the largest since 2018. But only 5.8 percent of high school students are enrolled in those courses in the 35 states where data is available. That percentage is similar to the percentage a year ago.

There are also gaps in access with respect to race, gender, English learner and special education status, geography, and income, Code.org found. For instance, 89 percent of Asian students and 82 percent of white students can take foundational computer science courses, whereas 67 percent of Native American students have such access.

Closing those gaps is particularly important as tools powered by artificial intelligence—which have already become a force in other industries such as health care and business—become even more ubiquitous, the report says.

“Learning fundamental computer science concepts gives students a deeper insight into how AI systems work, which benefits those building technologies that utilize AI and those who need to make decisions about AI in their personal lives,” the report says. “Foundational computer science and AI literacy will result in more diverse, critical creators and consumers of AI.”

Other equity gaps in access to foundational computer science courses highlighted in Code.org’s research include:

  • White, Black, and Native Hawaiian students are proportionally represented in computer science classes relative to their overall share of the high school population, Code.org found. Asian students are overrepresented. However, Hispanic students and Native American/Alaskan students are underrepresented. In fact Hispanic students are 1.4 times less likely than their white and Asian peers to enroll in computer science classes.
  • The percentage of females in high school participating in foundational computer science nationally has been stuck at around 31 percent for the last three years. In fact, males are twice as likely to take foundational computer science courses as females, Code.org reported.
  • Students in special education—defined as those receiving support under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—make up about 15 percent of the student population, but just 10 percent of those in foundational computer science classes, across 33 states where data was available.
  • While more than half of students—52 percent—are considered economically disadvantaged, just over a third of students in foundational computer science classes—34 percent—meet that definition, according to data in 33 states analyzed by code.org.
  • Suburban schools are more likely than urban and rural schools to offer foundational computer science courses. More than two-thirds of suburban schools provide the courses, compared to 55 percent each of urban and rural schools.

With access, ‘students become computer science advocates’

The report outlines how policymakers and educators can help close these gaps. One significant move is for states to make computer science a graduation requirement. That’s something eight states have done so far: Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Additionally, while Maryland and Mississippi haven’t created a specific computer science requirement, taking computer science courses is the primary way to fulfill an existing graduation requirement.

Having a computer science graduation requirement seems to be making a difference in Arkansas when it comes to gender. The state adopted the requirement in 2021, for the graduating class of 2026. This year, 43 percent of females in the state’s 9th grade class were enrolled in a foundational computer science class, 12 percentage points higher than the national average for all females in high school.

“We are excited to see an increase in the number of high school students completing multiple computer science courses before graduation,” said Kelly Griffin, the director of computer science education at the Arkansas Department of Education, in a statement cited in the report. “These students develop a strong foundation that can be utilized in current and future careers.”

States can also require all schools to offer computer science classes, the report recommended. For instance, even though Georgia’s requirement that all high schools offer computer science education won’t kick in until the 2024-25 school year, the state is already seeing signs of progress.

Seventy-one percent of high schools in Georgia now offer foundational computer science classes. There’s been increased representation in those courses from female students, Hispanic students, students in special education, and English learners, though equity gaps remain, the report said.

Bringing computer science courses to high school is a key first step in building a workforce where these skills are likely to have deep value, the report concluded.

“When exposure and access are in place, students’ confidence to pursue opportunities beyond their computer science K–12 education becomes a reality, because students have become computer science advocates,” said Maria Camarena, a computer science teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, in a statement featured in the report.

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