The Responsibility of APCS for the Decline of Enrollment in Undergraduate Computer Science

June 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm Leave a comment

I had a really interesting discussion (perhaps “disagreement”) at the NCWIT meeting a few weeks ago.  My discussion partner claimed that “the APCS (Advanced Placement Exam in Computer Science) has to go” and “the APCS does nothing good for undergraduate computer science” and most pointedly, “the APCS exam is a factor in declining enrollments in computer science.”  I disagree strongly with that last point. I do think that the APCS is in need of improvement for broadening participation in computing, and I even agree that it doesn’t do much good for undergraduate computer science today.  However, I don’t believe that it does any harm.  The reality is that there is just so little computer science in high schools today, that the APCS (and just about any other CS curriculum) has almost no impact on potential computer science students in high school.

One of our major accomplishments (read “Barbara Ericson’s major accomplishments”) in “Georgia Computes!” is that the number of APCS high school teachers in the state has more than doubled in the last four years, and most of those new teachers took workshops from Barbara. The way we get the teacher count is by measuring the number of high schools in the state who send anyone to the APCS exam.  Since there is only one high school in the state that has more than one APCS teacher, the number of high schools is essentially 1:1 with the number of teachers. It’s also the case that the percentage of high schools offering APCS out of all high schools is higher in Georgia than any other school in the Southeast.  Georgia’s percentage of APCS-offering schools is higher than Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, etc.

That sounds impressive — until you realize that that percentage is 22%.  22% of Georgia high schools offer APCS.  The inverse implication is that 78% of high schools in Georgia offer no APCS, and if a high school doesn’t offer APCS, they most likely offer no computing at all.  Thus, with more than 75% of high schools offering no computer science, Georgia is a leader.

The CSTA has been recently crunching the numbers on APCS.  The APCS has been around for 25 years now.  In 26 states, the grand total of all students who have taken the APCS in all that time is less than 200.  That’s 8 students per year on average (over 25 years), in more than half of the United States.  8 students could be the output of a single teacher in a single high school.  In 26 states, then, there could be essentially no high school computer science at all.

APCS does over-emphasize programming, and it does emphasize Java which is not the best introductory programming language.  However, I can’t believe that APCS is swaying high school students’ opinions of computer science if the vast majority of those students never see AP classes or students taking them! The argument was made to me that, by offering credit for APCS, universities are holding the APCS in some respect and thus drawing attention to it, which may be hurting us because of the APCS failings.  Yes, the APCS may be overly emphasized by college CS departments. That doesn’t change the fact that even if a high school student in the US wanted to take APCS, almost none of them have any opportunity to even see the course.  We may be saying implicitly, “the APCS is great!” But if a student can’t take APCS, that statement has no real impact.

The problem with high school computer science is not that APCS is such a bad model. It’s that far too few students see any model of CS at all.  That’s another reason why Jan Cuny’s efforts at NSF to create “10,000 CS teachers for 10,000 high schools by 2015” is so important.  We need more CS teachers.  Yes, we need more and better curricular models.  But without teachers, even the best models will get no further into high schools than APCS is today.

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