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College & Workforce Readiness

Make Computer Science a Graduation Requirement, Says College Board

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 21, 2018 5 min read
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The nonprofit that oversees the Advanced Placement exams is endorsing the idea that computer science should be a high school graduation requirement. And it’s prepared to put funding behind it.

The College Board said schools should make it mandatory for students to take computer science before they graduate—perhaps by letting the course count towards a math or science requirement. It’s apparently the first time the group has called for a specific graduation requirement, though it has long had a strong lobbying presence in statehouses.

“The College Board is willing to invest serious resources in making this viable—much more so than is in our economic interest to do so,” said College Board President David Coleman, on a conference call with reporters. “To governors, legislators, to others—if you will help us make this part of the life of schools, we will help fund it.”

The announcement came as part of AP’s annual rollout of seniors’ AP coursetaking patterns, this time on the class of 2017. But to a large extent, the release was a vehicle for the nonprofit to tout the astonishing growth in its computer science courses—almost singlehandedly due to the debut in the 2016-17 school year of its AP Computer Science Principles class.

The course, which the College Board claims is its most successful course launch of all time, takes a broader approach to computer science than its longstanding AP Computer Science A class, which focuses much more narrowly on programming in the Java language.

AP data shows that 103,800 students took at least one computer science exam in 2017. That figure represents students in any grade level, not just seniors. (The total number of exams taken, at 104,900, is slightly higher than the number of students, because some students took both tests.) By comparison, 57,900 students in 2016 took Computer Science A.

The pool of students taking the new test was also much more diverse. The number of women, black students, Hispanic/Latino students, and rural students all more than doubled over the number who took AP Computer Science A in the previous year.

It’s less clear how many actual students are enrolled in such a course. That data is much trickier to get, because some students who take the exams don’t sit for official AP classes, or take the exams at schools that aren’t their own.

Computer Science in Context

Thanks in no small part to the work of advocacy groups such as Code.org, the “computer science for all” push has gathered increasing steam, despite qualms from some who debate the theory of action behind it: Should it be narrowly tailored to workforce preparation? Or is the goal more conceptual—to get kids thinking in a different way?

The College Board’s entry into this discussion has been the development of AP Computer Science Principles. It received funding from the National Science Foundation to create the course, as well as from the Chan Zuckerberg Intiative, to help more low-income and underprivileged students access it.

To an extent, the College Board designed AP Computer Science Principles as a corrective to its older sibling. The original class purposefully mimicked an entry-level college computer science course. But in retrospect, that was a mistake, said Trevor Packer, the senior vice president of the AP program:

“Our AP [Computer Science A] course, like most introductory courses, focused intensively on the syntax and grammar of a programming language,” Packer said. “It’s like saying to a student that if you’re interested in French, your first course needs to be an advanced French grammar course.”

Officials say they’re convinced by research linking computer science to workforce needs. By contrast, there’s less good research connecting other graduation requirements, even calculus, to success in college or work, Packer said.

College Board officials said they don’t endorse one specific graduation policy. Indeed, states have taken very different pathways, with some allowing the course to count for Algebra 2 and even foreign language, despite pushback from teachers in those subjects. But they do think it ought to be a requirement, not an option.

Virginia, meanwhile, recently became the first state to insert computer science into all of its grade-by-grade state standards, by far the most extensive state mandate so far.

Clearly, such mandates would probably increase the number of AP exams given, generating considerable revenue for the College Board. But the group says it would be willing to help defray the costs of matching textbooks, exam fees, and teacher training for teachers in states that reach out for assistance. (Right now, it supports those efforts for individual schools.)

So why a graduation mandate, rather than an option? Well, for one, they said, students who don’t have the opportunity to take the class are at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating the online world that is increasingly governing American’s lives, and in learning its architecture.

And secondly, in many schools, computer science doesn’t fit neatly into any one discipline. “The math people don’t fully want to own it as a math course and the science people don’t fully want to own it as a science course,” Packer said. “It does create a tension in policy if we’re going to achieve widespread participation in the class.”

The College Board, meanwhile, tracks many students into their college careers to examine whether taking AP classes improved college coursetaking and completion. That research doesn’t exist yet for AP Computer Science Principles because it’s so new. But by this summer, Packer said, it should know whether students who took the Principles exam are going on to take the Computer Science A course—hopefully diversifying the students who take that exam, who are still predominately white and male.

Class of 2017 Patterns

Similar to last year, officials noted that AP test-taking continued to grow for the graduating class of 2017, and that more low-income students than ever are taking AP exams. College Board officials emphasized that these increases have not caused declines in test scores, indicating that the pool is expanding but not at the expense of course quality.

“One in 4 AP students is low income,” Coleman said. “A program once reserved for the wealthy few has transformed.”

Disparities do remain in terms of exam scores, however, with a smaller proportion of black and American Indian students in particular scoring a 3 on the exam, the level that typically confers college credit.

Chart: College Board, “Class of 2017 Data Overview”. 2018

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