Is There A Future For High School Computer Science?

OK that is a fairly provocative title. But I think it is actually a fair and reasonable question. The decision last week to drop one of the Advanced Placement Computer Science exams (which I discussed here) has brought a whole new level of discussion about computer science education in general and high school computer science education in particular. Now clearly I believe that it is important that these is a future for high school computer science but doing the right thing is not necessarily a part of the educational process.

So what has the discussion been looking like? If you follow your news in the main stream media or just on blogs you probably haven't heard much of the discussion. So far it appears that the discussion has been taking place on mailing lists. Not exclusively of course. The one news story I have seen so far was this one in the Washington Post.

Cay Horstmann has a blog post titled Is Computer Science the New Latin? That post shows the enrollment numbers for the last several years in the AP CS exams. Cay also has some suggestions for what people in industry can do to help promote computer science as a field. I'm going to have some more suggestions about that in the coming days. Industry really does have to help if we don't want to see the shortage of qualified people drop still more.

Dave Warlick has a post that starts off being about the four exams that are being dropped but ends with discussion of the AP CS AB exam and related issues. He makes a couple of good points including "I remain convinced that the problem has much more to do with how we teach computer science than the tests we give at the end." This is a concern that is being expressed by more and more CS education professionals as well.

Tom Finin has some numbers about the overall drop in computer science enrollment in his post. You'll see those numbers a lot if you dig into the problem. Tom points out a common belief (which I share) that "Eliminating the computer science AP test will discourage high schools from offering computer science courses and their students from taking them." If this day of No Child Left Behind all electives are under serious strain. At many schools the only reason computer science survives is the allure and prestige of that AP designation. Now one AP exam remains but as I pointed out the other day changes are in store. Will all schools be able to keep up? I have my doubts.

The discussion in the mailing lists has been different in interesting ways between how high school teachers and college/university faculty are reacting to the news.

The high school people are responding primarily to the loss of the test and what he means to enrollment and to the value of the test. Many people believe that the AB exam, which has been cut, is the one that should remain because it is the more valuable course. Others are discussing the possible changes to the one remaining exam and if or how much like the current AB exam it will become. All good questions/issues. This has very definite short term consequences for high school CS people.

The higher ed people are using this largely as a discussion of larger issues - dealing with declining enrollment, how do we teach computer science, what should the CS1 & CS2 courses look like, and other important pedagogical issues. Frankly I think these are wonderful discussions to have and I'm very glad they are going on. It doesn't help the high school situation much in the short term though. Still I am learning a lot from it.

I've been thinking about what I think the AP CS exam should become BTW but I'll wait for another post to lay that out. In the mean time I see losing one of the two APCS exams as a huge blow to the prestige of CS education. I can see that in the long term a single exam/course may be a good thing as long as it is the right curriculum. I also believe that for it to be successful on any level there has to be a clear and strongly recommended prerequisite course. Sure college students can jump right into CS 1 but a) in practice that doesn't work as well as people like the think and b) high school kids are not college kids. They need a head start. I don't believe that many high school students can really handle a year long college course in a high school year. (If nothing else there are not as many study hours per course in high school.)

In the near term this change is going to effect how administrators view CS's importance relative to other areas. The same is true for students and their parents. Plus of course many students will just take one course when they would otherwise have taken two. I just wish higher education, though their admissions officers, would express some sort of preference for a real computer science course on transcripts for students applying to science, technology, engineering and math programs. That would help more than almost anything else I can think of.

Comments (5)
  1. Rachel says:

    "I just wish higher education, though their admissions officers, would express some sort of preference for a real computer science course on transcripts for students applying to science, technology, engineering and math programs."

    I completely agree. This would make more of a difference than anything would – if universities wanted to see computer science courses, students would take them. Also, if honors computer science courses were available. In my state, there are NO honors designations for computer science courses! How is this even possible? My class is every bit as challenging as honors physics.

  2. Baker Franke says:

    First truth first: I think dropping the AB without really consulting the community just further proves the bottom-line approach to education the College Board is after.  It’s not about doing right by students, it’s about $$$$.

    Having said that, just to be contrarian, isn’t the *WHOLE POINT* of the AP curriculum to be a REAL college-level course taken by a high school student?  What’s wrong if it’s hard?  What’s wrong if many students can’t handle it?

    We act as though AP courses are supposed to be high school level courses.  Let’s not forget the history of these things. But that’s where we are today – the APs have essentially become a nationalized high school curriculum.  More and more it’s EXPECTED that high school students can take and handle AP courses.

    The College Board, seeing an opportunity to make more $$$, is not going to really argue that point.  The more than can appeal to the masses the more influence and money they can accrue.

    So, I don’t see the problem if the A test becomes much more difficult and some schools have a hard time keeping up.  We act as though teachers and students have the right for AP courses to be manageable by most students. It’s not supposed to be.

    The college board *should* be making all AP courses more challenging.  Of course, the won’t because then enrollment numbers would decline across the board, and they don’t want that to happen.

    Many of the best schools in the country are starting to drop APs anyway (see:

    For my part, I will continue to teach data structures and algorithms and will call my course AP Computer Science.  If the A test remains relatively the same, then my students will jump for joy when we’re done with the AP material by Christmas, they’ll be relatively assured of getting a high score, and we can move on to other interesting things without being concerned about covering all the material.

    But the A test must change.  Let’s be honest, it’s not a college-level curriculum…not for a year-long course.  Maybe it was only designed to be a semester-long course in the first place.

    I’m interested to see which way they go.  They could go deeper with programming or go broader with non-programming topics.  We’ll see.


  3. Baker Franke says:

    …And another thing.

    This could be a golden opportunity for the CSTA to jump in and define what a "real" computer science course is.  Perhaps CSTA could do some credentialing and help to promote that to colleges and universities.

    It could be a way to unshackle ourselves from the College Board.  More and more Universities are taking AP courses on transcripts with a grain of salt – that’s why we had to do that stupid audit.  But at the higher levels, with SO MANY students taking APs it just makes all students look even more the same. It’s almost like a credentialing to get on the table – SAT Score, some number of APs, and you’ll be considered.  After that, college admissions offices must looking for other ways to distinguish applicants.

    What better than a non-College-Board certified course from the CSTA, or ACM, or some combination?

    As CS teachers we MUST shed the inferiority complex.  We want to be UNIQUE, not the same as everyone else.  

  4. AlfredTh says:

    Note that the CSTA is involved in the study of the exam. There is a post at the CSTA blog ( )about that and there are a lot of comments there.

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