Big rise in AP CS test-takers in Georgia and in US

January 3, 2012 at 7:29 am 12 comments

Below is the message that Barbara just sent to AP CS teachers in Georgia.  Above is the graph of the historical trends.  The rise year-by-year since 2007 is pretty dramatic. (Georgia Computes! started in 2006.)  Note, too, that this rise is despite a decrease in the number of schools offering AP CS.  The teachers’ efforts at recruitment and the yield per teacher has been increasing, and that’s driving the improving numbers.
The very last line of her message is pretty important — AP CS test-takers nationwide crossed the 20K boundary, the point at which the College Board used to say (don’t know if it’s still true) that the AP CS would be breaking even. Last year was 19,390.
Congratulations Georgia AP CS A teachers!  In 2011 the largest number of students ever took the CS AP A exam in Georgia at 884.  This is especially exciting as the number of schools offering AP CS A in Georgia has been declining for years (from 81 in 2007-2008 to 64 in 2010-2011).
 The mean score was 2.61 down from 2.83 the year before.  The number of females was up at 154 (from 118 last year), but that is still 1 less that the maximum which was in 1999.  The number of blacks was 79 which is an increase from the 68 last year but still not anywhere near the max from 1999 at 163. See for the original data for each state and the national data.
Other AP exams still are way ahead of CS in Georgia.  I will be really happy when CS gets to these numbers.
Exam           Total   Females   Black
CS                 884      154            79
Calculus AB   7176    3561        1447
Biology          5535    3204        976
Chemistry      3292    1525        505
Statistics        5155    2669        871
Nationally the number of people taking the CS AP A exam also increased to 21,139.

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Creating new models for on-line CS learning The syntax problems in high school CS

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 3, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Last year’s increase in AP CS takers is nice, but females are at 17.4% (other STEM tests mentioned are over 46%), blacks around 9% (other tests over 15%), so the bias towards only white and Asian males taking CS is starting in the high schools, at least in GA (and probably nationwide).

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 3, 2012 at 9:01 am

      That’s exactly the point of the second graph — yes, we are making progress; no, we’re nowhere near the right place yet.


  • 3. Max Hailperin  |  January 3, 2012 at 8:35 am

    The Georgia female fraction of the AP CS test takers, 17%, is close to the national 19%. By contrast, in my state (Minnesota), this fraction is only 9%. Has anyone looked at these numbers across states and years? Is the pattern of which states are low and which are high reasonably stable from year to year? Are there any obvious explanatory variables that account for state-to-state variation?

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  January 3, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Great questions, Max. Barb tracks some of these variables. For example, she looks at test-takers per population of the state, and finds that while Texas and California are always the top AP CS test-taking states, Maryland has a surprisingly high density of AP CS test-takers. Overall, Maryland values AP highly, and students are encouraged to take many AP classes and tests. It would be great to explore these demographic variables, too.

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  January 3, 2012 at 8:39 am

    In the family car driving swiftly along Yogi Berra’s son says “Hey Dad I think we’re lost”. Yogi replies “I know but we’re making good time!”.

    As far as I know, this is the same AP course that has been out there for some time, and if it is, then it is one of the most terrible presentations of computing at any level.

    How are we supposed to be happy about getting more high schoolers to take on this picture of computing?

    Best wishes for more attention to quality in our field in the New Year,


    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  January 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Having talked to some of the best AP CS teachers, I’m more optimistic about what’s being taught in these courses in the best cases. The best AP CS courses don’t teach just to the test, teach more broadly than just Java syntax, and paint an engaging picture of computer science as a field. AP CS specifies a set of topics — not how they are to be taught, nor what other topics can or can’t be taught. I don’t think we have a clear picture of what’s going on in all these courses.

      One of the few places where AP CS leads the other AP exams is that a higher percentage of AP CS test takers go on to take more CS in college than, say, Biology test-takers go on to take more Biology, or Statistics test-takers go on to take more Statistics. Even if it’s not a great class, if it’s a class that corrects misconceptions of CS and sends the students on to take more CS, it’s a net win.

      Happy New Year to you, too, Alan!

      • 7. Alan Kay  |  January 3, 2012 at 9:12 am

        Hi Mark

        Good teachers often are able to transcend poor curricula — and more power to them!

        But doesn’t it seem that the official representation of our field in its AP form should be much much better?

        By the way, we are not the only culprits here. I was quite shocked to get and look at the official text — Campbell — for the Biology AP (it is one of the leading — if not the leading — textbooks for Bio in university).

        What an incredible mishmash of terminologies and details with essentially no narrative structure to organize the ideas along any dimension! (And this in a field that does have one of the great books about itself — The Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts, et al.)

        In our field, we have a lot less essential knowledge to organize, and much more leeway to pick and choose how this is done.

        Needless to say, I was quite disappointed that the poke at CS AP a few years ago declined to fix it, and instead produced gestures at alternative paths that don’t address the same criteria as an AP course should.



        • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 4, 2012 at 2:46 am

          While I agree with you that the AP Bio course has been a huge pile of factoids, the revision to the AP Bio exam and course (starting with the 2013 test) looks fairly promising.

          The Campbell and Reese book is not as bad as you paint it.

          Incidentally, I also agree that the AP CS course is a rather poor choice pedagogically. I’ve never been fond of the Java-syntax class as a first entry to CS. I’ve deliberately delayed having my son learn Java until he’s had years of experience in several other languages (including most recently Scratch, Scheme, C, and Python), so that he can appreciate why compile-time strict typing is useful sometimes.

          • 9. Alan Kay  |  January 4, 2012 at 7:43 am

            Hi “Gas”

            As always I’m just expressing my opinions and attempting to support them with evidence and argument — so my pronouncements about the Campbell book are not cosmic but just based on my background in molecular biology, familiarity with the (I claim) truly great book “Molecular Bio of the Cell” (especially the 3rd edition), and some experience and developed skill at writing. With these as disclaimers, I think the Campbell book is quite a terrible piece of work.

        • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm

          I looked up Molecular Biology of the Cell by Alberts. It is also a very popular textbook, but for cell biology classes, which have the Campbell-level course as a prerequisite. You may be expressing a preference for narrower, more focused classes over broad survey classes, or for one subfield of biology, or it may just be better writing. In any case, the two books are intended for quite different courses, and so can’t really be fairly compared.

          • 11. Alan Kay  |  January 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm

            Hi “Gas”

            I think they can be fairly compared on most levels — and especially at the levels at which any book besides a dictionary can be compared — that is: at the level of narrative power, content and structure.

            Also the two books are similar in size (this is because there is a lot of content in cell biology and this content is not just for one kind of cell organization).

            So we can also ask questions about how well a large book is able to organize its various parts and how well “that which can be integrated and related” has been.

            And yes I am definitely expressing a preference for better writing!

            Isn’t that a very large part of the point when we are trying to more than just put out the facts regardless of context or any heed to the learner? — instead, it is the reader, the learner, that is the reason for any piece of writing.

            And … if you take a look at TMBOTC, you will see that there is almost nothing in the Campbell book that is needed as a prerequisite. And better so!

            As a book, as a text-book, as a wonderful rendering of the Romance of Biology, and of Science itself, The Molecular Biology of the Cell is a great book, and Campbell is a very poor book — not to be recommended to any young learner for sure.

            And why should we give young learners crap when we are trying to get them excited about wonderful powerful ideas and how they are found and invented?

            I have very similar opinions about the CS AP material, and other trappings of teaching computing today. Much of it really is crap — a budget of bad ways to introduce young minds to ideas that are really quite beautiful, but whose beauty is hidden behind both fads and academic expediencies.

            For example, my nephew showed me his Java text from college “Java for Programmers” (Deitel) and it quite literally made me feel ill. A “fair comparison” is that it makes the Campbell text look “reasonable” in contrast. Yikes!

            Best wishes,


  • 12. Alfred Thompson  |  January 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    I share much of Alan Kay’s feelings towards the APCS exam. Actually I have some concerns about AP in general as well. But for now APCS is the only measure of CS penetration in high schools so it has some value in that regard. As they say for cars “use for comparison only.” I think of the people who say “why teach everyone CS when not everyone needs to be a programmer.” Even ignoring the fact that computer science I more than programming do we need that many more biologists and physicists than we do computer scientists? And can we talk about the difference between the number of people who use calculus every day compared to the number who use computer skills?

    Georgia is making progress in numbers of students and that is great. I am concerned about the drop in the number of schools (as I believe you are) though. We need that to grow. And I wish we didn’t have to be so dependent on the teachers to transcend the curriculum. But we are working with what we’ve got.


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