Three Ways to Fix AP Computer Science

Tech Literacy

Three Ways to Fix AP Computer Science

 

Robb Cutler

Computer science education was dealt yet another severe blow recently when the College Board announced earlier this year it was eliminating the Advanced Placement Computer Science AB course and exam from its offerings. The long-term impact of this decision may not be known for years.

Computer science education was dealt yet another severe blow recently when the College Board announced earlier this year it was eliminating the Advanced Placement Computer Science AB course and exam from its offerings. The long-term impact of this decision may not be known for years.

In general, AP courses are a sought-after commodity. Since 2002, the number of AP exams given each year has grown by 60 percent — in raw numbers, an increase of almost a million exams. Not so in computer science. During the same time, the number of students taking the AP Computer Science AB exam has plummeted from a high of almost 8,000 in 2002 to just over 5,000 in 2007, a drop of 35 percent. Only one other AP exam — AP Computer Science A — experienced a decrease in numbers over the same time period.

There is some cause for hope, however. The College Board has appointed a review commission to create a new AP Computer Science curriculum and exam. Its challenge will be to bring computer science education into the 21st century and design a course that engages all students and shows them the richness and beauty of a scientific discipline that is central to modern life and essential to our future.

Fixing the Problem

Here are three ideas on how to improve AP Computer Science offerings.

Make AP Computer Science classes more inclusive and university professors less myopic. Because these courses are taken from university-level first-year courses, these classes tend to be geared too much toward prospective majors rather than toward a broad range of students. Other disciplines, including many sciences, are more inclusive in their offerings, knowing that by attracting a larger, more diverse audience, they are more likely to increase overall interest and enrollment in their courses.

Make the course fit the challenge. Introductory courses too often are set up as gatekeeper courses with a reputation for being time-consuming and impossible rather than rigorous and challenging. Because computer science is an elective, this reputation is a death knell. What student faced with the increasingly competitive landscape of college admission would voluntarily take a course that not only may lower his GPA, but also may cause his other classes to suffer because of the time commitment it requires?

Recognize and use the cross-disciplinary synergies available with computer science. Emerging fields such as bioinformatics, computational economics and computer-generated animation are obvious candidates to attract young people to computer science. Yet these opportunities often go wanting. Some schools are bucking this trend, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

If the College Board’s review committee is successful, the decision to eliminate the AP Computer Science AB exam and remake the subject will seem visionary. If not, computer science education will have suffered a setback from which it may not recover.

Declining Participation

Just 40 percent of U.S. high schools offer an AP Computer Science course, according to a 2005 study by the Computer Science Teachers Association. Dig deeper and the news is even worse: The same poll shows that from 2002 to 2004, AP exam-taking in other disciplines rose by 19 percent, but the number of students taking the Computer Science A exam dropped by 8 percent, and the number taking the Computer Science AB exam decreased by 19 percent. Also, in 2004, while 56 percent of all AP test-takers were female, only 11 percent of Computer Science AB test- takers were female (a drop from 17 percent in 1999) and only 6 percent were from underrepresented minorities.

International Comparisons

Across the globe, other countries are developing a national high school computer science curriculum to prepare all their students for the global high-tech economy. U.S. students fall behind because educational policy here is developed locally rather than at the federal level. Israel, Scotland and South Africa have instituted national pre-college computer science curricula.

Jul 22 2008

Sponsors