College Board to discontinue the AP CS AB exam

Well the news hit like a thunderclap in the Advanced Placement Computer Science world today - the College Board has decided to discontinue the AP CS AB exam after next school year. That will leave one AP CS exam, the A exam, rather than the two course sequence that exists today. I'm still thinking about all the ramifications but (and regular readers of mine will not be surprised) I have some thoughts.

Is this a sudden change?

Yes it is. I heard no talk about it about a month ago at SIGCSE where I talked to a number of people from College Board and people on the test development committee. Everyone I have heard from was surprised.

Secondly this is about as fast as it can happen. Schools have the AB course in their course catalogues  and have signed up students for next year. Dropping the exam for next year would have been very disruptive and likely have been politically unacceptable. Some people are going to be unhappy as it is.

Why would they do this?

I think this is clearly a financial decision. The exams that are being cut (Italian, French and Latin exams are also being cut back) are among the exams with the lowest numbers of test takers. It is expensive to create, maintain and grade these exams.  The College Board says they want to provide more supporting materials for teachers and that suggests that non-money-making exams will have to be cut.

What does it mean for schools?

  • Schools that only offer the A course (roughly equivalent to CS1 in university) will be largely unaffected unless or until the A exam is changed (more on that below). These are the majority of schools.

  • Schools that only offer the AB course will probably offer the A course. However since many of them have a pre-requisite course that covers most of the A material this change may mean that they drop that course. They may start looking for an advanced course to follow up after the A course. Some schools will drop teachers though.

  • Schools that currently offer both the A and AB course will be very likely to look for or create an advanced course to follow the A course. They will be looking to keep students fully engaged and teachers fully employed. On the down side some schools will see this as an opportunity to cut back and save money. That will put additional stress on teachers and administrators.

What is the future for the AP CS A exam?

Only time will tell of course but there are some clues available already. A member of the AP Computer Science Course and Exam Review Commission sent out the following message today.

“Last week, the College Board’s Trustees made a decision that has direct relationship to the work we are asking you to help us do over the coming months. Given the steady decline of student and teacher participation in the Computer Science AB program, it will be discontinued following the May 2009 AP Exam administration. A much larger number of students and teachers participate in the AP Computer Science A program, which is designed to reflect one semester of college Computer Science, but we see a need to ensure that the AP Computer Science A course that is so much more popular is replaced, in time, with the best possible one-year college-level in Computer Science. After you have helped us to identify the ideal future state of one, single, full-year AP Computer Science course, we’ll then plan how to implement the professional development and the changes, incrementally if necessary, to expand the scope of the current Computer Science A courses to the ideal state.”

My take on that is that the A exam may be seriously changed over the next several years. The wording above suggests that the A exam will become more like the AB exam. I can see that getting some resistance.  I do not know if this will result in considering other (other than Java) programming languages but that is a possibility.  Personally I hope so but I never did like Java.

For the next several years I expect the A exam to remain mostly the same though because of the work involved in creating a new exam and retraining teachers. Well what are you hearing? Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just maybe an ugly thing?

Comments (9)
  1. Bryan says:

    Unsure just how it’s all going to shake out but I have gone up in my admins eye’s with this news. As I cover a more real world load of material then what the AP was doing and given my program has grown not gotten smaller these past 13 years in the long run I think it will help. More teacher’s will start moving beyond the limits AP put on the curriculum and I think you will see an up swing in the number of students going into Comp Sci and EE programs.

  2. OK that is a fairly provocative title. But I think it is actually a fair and reasonable question. The

  3. Alexandrovich Romanovsky says:

    The announcement says that these exams will be dropped after the 08-09 year, so students currently enrolled in the classes can still take it for next year

  4. AlfredTh says:

    Right – the test will still be in place next year. Dropping it before then would be very disruptive to schools.

  5. I don’t see this as all bad.  The field is in flux and the AP ppl can’t keep up.

  6. I’m disappointed to hear about this. I took an AP computer science course in 2002-03. It was only technically designed to prepare students for the A exam, but I with a small amount of additional study (quick internet tutorials on pointers and Big-O notation, IIRC) I was able to earn a 5 on the AB exam. That test got me out of having to take the first semester programming course when I got to college.

    Now, why exactly did I choose to take the AB exam when my course was only designed for the A test? I took the course during my senior year and I had already picked a university by the time I had to choose my AP exams for the year. My university offered credit for the first semester of programming for CS majors for good scores on the AB exam. For the A exam, they offered credit in a very basic programming course that is worth no credit for majors and is not even offered very often. If other universities have similar policies, this will make the AP CS program essentially useless (in terms of academic credit) for people who intend to major in the field. Hopefully they do end up adding some of the AB topics into a unified AP computer science exam and universities take that into account when assigning credits.

  7. Baker says:


    Most colleges offer their own placement tests for courses if you don’t have an AP score to show for it.  Many colleges require you take that placement test EVEN IF YOU HAVE an AP score.  So the placement issue is no biggie.

    The credit issue is a different matter, but more and more colleges (I think) are limiting the amount of credit you can actually get for AP courses.  Since more and more high school students are coming to college having taken 3,4,5…8 AP courses, the college does not want you to give you credit for all that because they lose tuition money for every course the give credit for.  I think the average for most colleges is now somewhere around 3 – they’ll give you credit for up to 3 AP courses.  Top tier private colleges usually don’t award credit anyway – only placement.

    As APs continue to proliferate they become less and less like real college-level courses and more like nationalize high school curricula.  I predict colleges will be awarding less and less credit for APs as a result.

  8. Tom Indelicato says:

    Funny how "colleges will be awarding less and less credit for APs", while at the same time they are really pushing high school students to take more and more AP courses.

    The College Board decision to drop the AB exam (the wrong choice of the two, IMHO) will have wide repurcussions. Our school currently offers the AB course only, because we have a C# programming class as a prerequisite. THAT one semester course is almost the A curriculum (essentially just missing the case study), so suggesting that schools could just drop down to the A course is not so simple. Perhaps we could have C# in the fall, with the optional APCS-A in the spring, but this will need investigation.

  9. Comp Sci Guy says:

    I believe this was absolutely the correct decision on the part of the College Board. Computer Science is not even a valid subject in regards of education any longer.  Therefore all of those “nay sayers” above me just accept the truth that we as computer science people are in a useless field.  So take the APCS-A class because that’s all you’re going to get, and don’t complain about it because you’re certainly not going to get the AB course back.  Enjoy another day of work in an obselete course with no benefits.

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