Eight States Have Fewer Than 10 Girls Take AP Computer Science Exam

By Marva Hinton — November 28, 2016 4 min read
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More girls are taking the Advanced Placement exam in computer science, but there are still several states where girls lag far behind boys when it comes to this subject.

That’s one of the chief findings of a state-by-state analysis of the newly released data from the College Board by Barbara Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.

Ericson compiled the data from the College Board for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Her numbers differ slightly from the College Board’s because she does not take Canadian test-takers into account.

This year 54,379 students took the AP Computer Science A exam in the United States, a 17 percent increase over 2015.

Through an email, Zach Goldberg, the senior director of media relations for the College Board, noted that AP Computer Science A is the fastest-growing AP exam.

“We see a positive trend of females and underrepresented minorities taking on the challenging course work that will help prepare them for college and career success in critical STEM fields,” wrote Goldberg.

Of the U.S test-takers, 23 percent were girls. That’s up from 22 percent last year.

But in eight states, fewer than 10 girls took the exam, and Mississippi and Montana didn’t have a single female take the exam.

Among other states:

  • In Alaska, nine out of 60 test-takers were girls.
  • In Nebraska, eight out of 88 were girls.
  • In North Dakota, six out of 35 were girls.
  • In Kansas, four out of 57 were girls.
  • In Wyoming, two out of six were girls.
  • In South Dakota, one out of 26 was a girl.

Ericson pointed to studies that show girls are often discouraged from going into the field by their teachers and their parents.

“The girls certainly get that message that computer science is not necessarily for you. It’s for the guys,” said Ericson.

When it comes to states with the highest percentage of girls taking the exam, West Virginia leads the way with 36 percent.

The pass rate for girls held steady this year over last at 61 percent. But that’s still a few percentage points lower than the overall pass rate for this year at 64 percent.

Ericson’s analysis found four states where girls performed better than the overall pass rate. In New Jersey, girls had a passing rate of 69 percent. In California and Illinois, girls’ passing rate was 67 percent. In Massachusetts, the passing rate for girls was 66 percent.

Results by Race and Ethnicity

Ericson also analyzed the state-by-state data by race and ethnicity. This year 2,027 black students took the exam compared to 1,784 last year. Hispanic students also saw growth in the number of test-takers. This year 6,256 Latino students took the exam up from 4, 272 last year. (The College Board has warned against reading too much into comparisons with previous years when it comes to students’ racial and ethnic identities because of changes in the way this data is collected and reported.)

But African-American and Hispanic students continue to pass the exam well below the overall pass rate of 64 percent at 33 percent and 42 percent, respectively. For black students, that was a drop from 2015’s pass rate of 38 percent, while Latino students made a slight gain over last year’s pass rate of 41 percent.

Ericson said this performance gap can be partly attributed to a lack of exposure to computer science.

“In general, there’s some privilege going on here,” said Ericson. “The white and Asian males are more likely to have had computer science in their schools, are more likely to have had exposure earlier.”

She also pointed to a recent report by Google that found black students are less likely to see media portrayals of African-Americans in the computer science field, and that sends a negative message about what’s possible for them.

“So these underrepresented students don’t know of anybody like them in the media that’s in computing,” said Ericson. “So there’s social restrictions to say, ‘Hey, that’s not really for you. That’s for white and Asian males.’”

Twenty-four states had fewer than 10 African-American students take the AP Computer Science Exam A, while nine states had no African-American students take the exam.

States without a single black student taking the exam include: Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming.

African-American and Hispanic students didn’t reach the overall pass rate in any state, but black students came closest in New Jersey where their pass rate was 52 percent. Maryland is where Hispanic students came closest to the overall pass rate at 52 percent.

Fifteen states had fewer than 10 Hispanics take the exam. In Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, no Latino students took the exam.

New AP Course

This year the College Board introduced a new AP computer science course that doesn’t require previous coding experience. Ericson said she believes the AP Computer Science Principles course may eventually pave the way for more girls and black and Hispanic students to take and pass the AP Computer Science A exam.

Goldberg echoed that sentiment in an email.

“As part of our efforts to engage more young women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, the College Board this year launched AP Computer Science Principles,” wrote Goldberg. “With a unique focus on creative problem solving and real-world applications, AP Computer Science Principles introduces students to the foundational concepts of computer science and challenges them to explore how computing and technology can impact the world.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.