AP computer science principles draws more female, Black and Latino students than an older AP computer science course focused on coding, the College Board found in a study released Wednesday. It also is functioning as an important gateway to science, technology, engineering and math, the study found, becoming the first AP course in the STEM fields for many Black and Latino students.
“It really does a nice job, I think, of hooking some students who may not have considered computer science previously,” said Mike Petran, who teaches AP computer science principles at Hammond High School in Columbia, Md. This fall 64 students enrolled in the course, Petran said. He did not have detailed demographic data on those students, but he said they appear to be more representative of the school as a whole than was the case with computer science classes in years past.
The computer science principles course, Petran said, is “so relatable” to students, covering topics such as the Internet and cybersecurity in addition to concepts underlying computer programming. “It introduces ideas they have never thought about and have taken for granted their entire lives,” Petran said.
In St. Louis, teacher Alexander Schenk said the computer science principles course has drawn at lot of interest at the public Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. More than a third of the 32 students in the course there are female, he said, and more than a third are Black.
“For a lot of my students,” Schenk said, “the creative component and the collaborative component are huge in drawing students, especially for underrepresented groups. They’re getting to see that computer science is for them.”
Employers, colleges, high schools and advocacy groups have sought in recent years to diversify a field with high numbers of White and Asian-American men. AP courses are seen as one way to advance that cause.
This year, about 114,000 students nationally took the AP computer science principles exam, nearly twice as many as the 65,000 who took the older AP computer science test focused on the Java programming language.
Female students accounted for 34 percent of those who took the introductory exam, compared to 25 percent of those who took the older test.
Among those who took the introductory test, 7 percent were Black students, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 22 percent of Asian descent.
For the older test, the shares were 3 percent Black, 11 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 33 percent Asian.
The computer science principles course has become well-established in the Washington region. In the District, 290 students took the corresponding AP exam this year. So did 5,474 in Maryland and 2,324 in Virginia.
The College Board, a nonprofit organization based in New York, oversees the AP program as well as the SAT admissions test.
In 2020, there were more than three dozen types of AP tests in subjects spanning biology to world history. Students who earn high scores on the scale of 1 to 5 often qualify for college credit.
The College Board’s study found that many students who took the introductory computer science course used it as a springboard to the Java programming course and other STEM courses. It also found that for underrepresented groups the course was a key entry point to advanced science and math.
For 59 percent of Hispanic or Latino students who took the AP computer science principles test in the graduating class of 2019, it was their first AP exam in a STEM field. That was true as well for 68 percent of the Black students in the class of 2019 who took the test.
John B. King Jr., a former U.S. education secretary who is chief executive the Education Trust, an advocacy group for disadvantaged students, said the findings about the new course are encouraging for the quest to eliminate inequities of opportunity.
“Across the country, we know that structural barriers in access and exposure to computer science education and rigorous coursework in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) create disparities in opportunities to learn particularly for young girls, students of color, and students who would be the first in their families to attend college,” King said in a statement.
The course, he said, “is helping to address these disparities by offering historically underrepresented students the chance to participate in rich, engaging STEM learning that can open the door to new knowledge, postsecondary study, and career pathways.”
Computer science is a fast-growing field in higher education, drawing many students who view it as an entryway to jobs in the digital-technology sector of the economy.
Marilyn Fitzpatrick, who teaches AP computer science principles at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Md., said she recently spoke with a graduate from the Prince George’s County school who took the course and is now a computer science major at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Fitzpatrick said this student told her: “If I never took computer science in high school I really don’t think I would’ve gone to college.”
The Washington Post observed Fitzpatrick’s computer science principles class in December 2017. Students in it voiced enthusiasm for the subject.
The teacher said in an email Sunday that the course has become more robust over time, and is popular at Flowers High. “Not everyone who takes a computer science course in high school will become a computer scientist,” she said, “just like not everyone who takes biology or chemistry will become a doctor. But we as a school system owe them an opportunity to make informed career choices.”