Why should African-American men take the AP CS?

April 21, 2011 at 9:29 am 16 comments

I’m working on our NSF CE21 proposal due next week.  Part of every proposal is a report on what you got done with your last NSF funding.  So, I’ve just gone through a process of reviewing how we’ve done with “Georgia Computes!”

One of the failures of “Georgia Computes!” has been our impact on African-Americans in Georgia.  We’ve had impact on raising women and Hispanic student numbers in CS, but almost no impact on African-American students.  Below is a figure from the draft proposal showing the number of Black AP CS test-takers in the state (in blue), and the number who pass (in Red).  GaComputes started in 2006.  There’s a clear but small upward slope to the number of passers, but the number of test-takers from 2006 (66 students) to 2010 (68 students) is virtually flat.

What’s important to note in these results was We Had Access. 45% of the teachers in our professional development workshops were Black, 8% Hispanic, and 39% White. 56% of our teachers (across ethnicities) teach in schools that are mostly minority students. (44% of our teachers teach in schools that are economically disadvantaged.) Just getting to the minority and minority-serving teachers isn’t enough.

I met yesterday with Betsy DiSalvo who created the Glitch Project. She has been explicitly teaching AP CS content in Glitch lately, and encouraging her game-testers to take the AP CS and we’ll pay for it.  She says that probably five of her kids are excellent and would pass the test.  She says that maybe two of them will take it, but she’s not sure about even those.  She says that they see no value in taking the test.

They’re not confident about the test — they don’t think they’ll do well on it.  What’s more, they see no benefit if they pass.  She says that her Glitch kids plan to go to college in Computer Science, but the idea of skipping the first class or taking some other class instead has no interest for them.  “They don’t think like that about college,” she said.  (She also said that moving the test to 10 am instead of 8 am would make a big difference — these kids will travel 40 minutes to the test site, and those two hours would make it much easier.) So the tradeoff is embarrassment if they fail, and no real benefit if they pass. You can see why there’s little attraction there.

I asked Barb how she explained our numbers.  (And got her permission explicitly to say here in the blog, “Here’s one place where Georgia Computes failed.”)  She says that it just takes so long to create a program where no program existed before.  She told me the story of one high school teacher who has been taking Barb’s professional development workshop for years.  First the teacher taught Computing in the Modern World, then Beginning Programming and Intermediate Programming.  This coming Fall, the teacher will offer her first AP CS class.  “Her students are going to rock the test!” said Barb.  “She’s a great teacher!” But it took a long time for that teacher to feel confident at each level before she could teach AP CS, and building that content confidence in the teacher is critically important.

I still think that the AP CS:Principles effort is the right thing to do.  I firmly believe that our first step has to be to get well-trained CS teachers into schools, and that’s the goal of the new AP and the CS10K effort.  It’s going to take a long time to grow all those teachers.  We also have to figure out the argument for the minority students to take the test.  What’s the value-added for them?

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Adviser loses job over research-vs-teaching arguments Computer science enrollments rebound, up 10% last fall – Computerworld

16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Klappholz  |  April 21, 2011 at 9:57 am

    May I ask the obvious question, viz., if these minority students are going to major in CS in college — a great accomplishment on your part if they wouldn’t have before your intervention — and if they see no benefit in taking the test, why do see feel a need to “figure out the argument for the minority students to take the test?” Isn’t it, in fact, a bit much to question what they see as being in their best interest?…and maybe a bit questioning of what is possibly an ethnic/cultural point of view that we, as not of their ethnic/cultural group don’t understand.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  April 21, 2011 at 10:15 am

      You’re absolutely right, David — it may not be in their best interests to take the test. I’m raising the question for us to consider as a community that “owns” the AP CS (in the sense of caring about its design and possibly influencing the design). Is there a reason for these students to take the test? If we want students to have the experience of the class and take the test, is there something about the design that we should change? It was an explicit goal of “Georgia Computes!” to raise the number of African-American students who take the AP CS test, so it is an interesting question for us to consider why so few of them take the test.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  April 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Is there a different reason for African-American students to take the test from white American students? The question feels different from “why are they not taking the exam” to me. The same is true for the question of women as well. I think the reasons to take the exam are largely the same for all students. The reasons they don’t take the exam likely have more to do with either not knowing the benefits or ideas about why the benefits might not apply to them.
    I think it is not so much about giving them reasons to take the exam as it is overcoming misconceptions and fears about limiations they may think they face.
    BTW On the Internet no one knows if you are black, white, red or yellow or male or female unless you tell them. This is non trivial as it lets many people establish reputations online without exposing much more than their knowledge and willingness to help.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  April 21, 2011 at 10:53 am

      The reasons/benefit we offer are the same, but how those reasons are perceived differs, or maybe they don’t know the reasons, as you suggest. Here’s another graph from the proposal I’m working on. The number of White students taking the APCS in Georgia has been rising dramatically. Same reasons are offered to both Black and White students.
      Number of students taking AP CS in Georgia

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  April 21, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I don’t like “because you can get college credits and perhaps skip a course in college” as a reason for “you should take the test”.

    I think we should examine the content of the current AP and try to assess what *learning benefits* (if any) might happen if one were to take the course.

    I do not like any part of the current AP curriculum — I think it is a terrible introduction to computing, should never have happened, and should be done away with instantly.

  • 6. Alex Rudnick  |  April 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    “She says that her Glitch kids plan to go to college in Computer Science, but the idea of skipping the first class or taking some other class instead has no interest for them. …”

    Yes. I actually decided against trying to skip out of CS 1, when I was an incoming freshman. I likely could have done it, but I didn’t want to miss anything interesting! Maybe the Glitch guys feel the same way?

  • 7. Bonnie MacKellar  |  April 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I took AP calculus in high school, with an easy A, and had to make the same decision. I decided to not take the test. I am glad. At least in my era, I don’t think AP calculus was necessarilly a good preparation for college level mathematics. As it turned out, my university had a special 1 semester condensed version of calculus, aimed at people like me who had taken it in high school. I tried it, and within a week knew it would be a disaster. I dropped back to the regular Calculus sequence, and again got A’s – but this time I learned it according to university standards.
    Personally, I would counsel many students, especially those from not-so-great high schools, to not try to place out of those all-important intro courses. Many students don’t have the study skills in place yet to be successful right away in the next level of the CS (or math) sequence.

    • 8. Alan Kay  |  April 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm

      Hi Bonnie

      I agree strongly with your advice here for many reasons.



  • 9. Briana Morrison  |  April 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I think we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We want them to *take the class* and learn the material, not necessarily *take the test*. I understand that using the AP test as the measuring stick for comparison purposes, but I wonder what your graph would look like if it were just African Americans enrolled in APCS classes. Unless you can force every enrolled student to take the test, I believe you want to measure both things…including the number that pass the class, not just the test.

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  April 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm

      You have a great point, Briana. Much of the focus on AP CS is because we can measure it. I don’t know if the graph for students in CS classes in high school is much different, though. I predict the correlation between test-takers and students studying CS in high school is very high, but we only have a measure for one of those.

  • […] the original here: Why should African-American men take the AP CS? « Computing … Filed Under: ArticlesTagged: draft, from-the-draft, impact, impact-on-raising, number, […]

  • 12. Ciera Jaspan  |  April 21, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Like Briana, I was a little confused, as your story implied that these students are in the courses, but simply not taking the test. Numbers would definitely help figure out what the question should be.

    Another thought, if indeed these students are enrolled but not taking the test: Are there any differences (socio-economic? other courses taken? high school? distance from the test site even?) between the African-American students who do take the test, and those who are in the class but choose not to take the test?

    • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  April 22, 2011 at 8:04 am

      The students in the post are in Glitch. They are paid to be game-testers, and they receive training on testing procedures and on programming (to help them be better testers). Over the last year, Betsy has been including AP CS content in their training. They are not in a traditional AP CS class.

      We have no way of knowing the number of students in any AP CS class anywhere. We figure that the state Department of Education must know the numbers of students in different kinds of classes, but we’ve never found anyone who can confirm that or tell us who might have those numbers. So, we measure AP CS test-takers.

  • […] had dramatic success in drawing women and Hispanic students into computer science — and we’ve barely budged the African-American numbers.  Why?  Betsy’s results suggest that GaComputes initiatives play to […]

  • […] is a critical question to answer for broadening participation, because we have to explain to under-represented minorities why it’s worth sticking with CS. Even more important for me is explaining this to non-majors, and in turn, to our colleagues in […]

  • […] program here) is going to be controversial.  She’s working on a problem we’ve had in GaComputes for years.  Besides Betsy DiSalvo’s work on Glitch, we’ve made little progress in increasing […]


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