AP Computer Science

Last week, Mark Guzdial wrote about the new CS: Principles course that is replacing the current AP CS course.   The current AP uses Java and in fact, is somewhat focused on teaching Java, the language as much as it is about teaching CS.  The change for the exam and course comes because the current setup turns off many people and it has been suggested that the current AP setup for CS is one factor that contributes to the lack of test takers generally and the lack of women and other underrepresented groups taking AP CS.

Mark suggests, however, that the new CS: Principles course and test might fail because colleges won’t offer credit for the course the way they did for the current AP, where colleges might be assured that students had a good understanding of a standard programming language.  He says:

It’s reasonable to say that an AP will only succeed (e.g., students will take it) if they can get credit or placement for the exam in college or university.  Typically, colleges and universities give credit for courses that are currently taught.  Will we see colleges and universities start teaching CS Principles?  Will they give credit for a course that they don’t teach? For languages they don’t teach?

Mark’s questions here are reasonable, but I don’t think they are the whole story.  His assumption is that students take AP courses to get credit, which might speed their ability to take advanced courses or even to finish college (which would save them money).  But that’s not the only, and maybe not even the main reason students take AP courses.  They take them to get into college in the first place.  AP is a signifier that the course is rigorous and generally at the college level.  It is the most advanced course students can take in high school, and a student who has taken several AP courses signals that they are a serious student, worthy of admitting to many prestigious colleges.

I know this in part because we have no AP courses at my school, and one of the issues that raises is how to signal to colleges that our upper level courses are as rigorous as typical AP courses.  We eliminated AP courses, in fact, because they weren’t rigorous enough.  They were limiting, focused often on memorizing facts rather than learning to do science or history in the way that colleges often expect.

At least one commenter mentions this in the comment thread, which is well worth the read.  Mark worries, in comment 30 (sorry, can’t link), that the signaling aspect of AP will miss underrepresented groups because that’s just not something they think about.  Mark and others think that unless CSP will give credit for a particular course, an intro CS course or a quantitative reasoning course or something along those lines, students won’t take the course at the high school level.  They might be right.

I don’t have time right now to pull the data, but I’m curious how many schools offer credit for the current AP CS course.  I know quite a few that don’t, either because their CS I course is very different from what’s taught in AP or just because they don’t really offer credit for many AP courses generally.  The question of the impact of any AP course on student enrollment in certain colleges and certain majors as well as whether they explore a field in high school is a complex one.  Reading the comments on Mark’s post will give you an insight into the complexity.  I note that there are no high school teachers commenting on that post.  A shame, because that perspective, I think, would be a bit different.

9 Replies to “AP Computer Science”

  1. As a retired College Professor, I wish that EVERY STUDENT, not cis majors had a CSP course. It might be nice for them to have it as part of their high school experience, but more importantly, they need it BEFORE they enter the work force in any capacity.

    My recommendation is that higher education take a look at the core requirements for graduation and include a course that covers CSP principles in the graduation requirement.

    Currently, the only “required computer” course is MS Office and a few basic computer principles.

    One of the best selling books at the college level concepts book, is Tech in Action. The 3 authors are from the Philadelphia area.
    I do wish they would chime in here.

    Change is not easy. 2 year schools are mandated to offer courses that transfer to 4 year colleges in Pennsylvania.

    We need to targe 4 year colleges, to require a CSP Course for all majors, then more students would take the AP course in high school,

    CSP is not necessarily a majors course. It is a course t h at helps all students identify the use and power of computing in their own lives, the community and the world.


  2. We offer AP History and AP English but have started offering dual-credit courses in Math and CS. These dual-credit courses are somewhat copies of University of Montana courses the kids can get UM credit for. They pay 1/3 of the UM per credit cost, and get a UM transcript. The equivalent UM courses are a semester course while our’s are a year long. If another university accepts UM transcripts then these course are accepted. No dealing with AP. The courses are written and taught by us and just have to include the UM course objectives. So far we are doing Precalc, Calc, Stats, Intro to Programming (Python, General credit) and this year Java (CS credit). This has been the simplest solution we have ever had to get the kids college credit for high school courses.

  3. AP CS Principles is not intended to replace AP CS A, but to extend the reach downward. Of course, it may turn out like AP CS AB, where they eliminated the more difficult exam because too few students took it.

    I checked UCSC AP policy—they currently give credit on the main CS intro course for majors for a 4 or 5 on the AP CS A, and for a course that covers half the material for a 3 on the AP CS A. They might give credit for a “computers are your friends” course for CS principles, but that will only help students who plan never to program a computer.

  4. The course will probably “succeed” for the reason you site — kids are being pushed to take more and more AP courses while colleges are giving less and less for them.

    I find a few things funny about the whole CSP thing.

    It’s not the first course in the major — that seems to be, at least for the most part, what AP has always been about – APCS A or AB — 101/102. AP Calc – the first math major course, AP Chem, Bio etc. and here we have a CS0. No way are more selective colleges giving credit for a non-major course when they don’t even give general credit for traditional AP calsses.

    The second thing is that I’ve heard of a number of schools that either ran CSP or plan to run CSP with 10th graders. If you have a course that the typical 10th grader can succeed in, then it’s not really college level. My students generally agree (and I teach gifted kids) and if my daughter was taking a class now in college that she could have mastered in 10th grade, I’d be really disappointed in the college.

    We’ll see how things play out. I for one don’t plan to teach CSP because I feel that our course is stronger. That said, I suspect that as long as AP has a strangle hold on what passes for rigorous education, the class will succeed.

    I’m all for more CS, but I wish more schools had the guts of Fieldston, ditch AP and just teach what we as schools felt was appropriate.

  5. I do believe, gswop, that you’re right, CSP is intended to be a lead-in to CS A and to expand the read of CS down. Mike Z, I agree with you about ditching AP, but there are many public schools who rely on it to create a college ready program for their students. Without the curriculum and testing AP provides, some of those schools would not have a strong enough program to get their best students into better colleges.

    I personally feel my own courses are stronger than anything AP currently offers, at least in breadth. Students who take all our CS courses will have exposure to everything from programming for robots to web development to app development and will work with at least 3 languages. CS Principles is aiming for that breadth, I think, but perhaps it needs a bit more rigor to it to satisfy some colleges.

  6. Laura – I don’t agree on the AP curriculum / tests.

    On the test side, Colleges don’t measure AP test results into acceptance – they can’t – for seniors results aren’t in until way after college acceptance.

    I’d also hope that schools would communicate rigorous courses to colleges. Garth mentioned dual credit courses so we’ve got accreditation right there and even if not, high schools have college counselors and they have relationships with college admissions offices.

    On the curriculum side, if a teacher can teach AP Calc, Bio, CS or whatever, they should be able to teach their own rigorous Calc, Bio, CS class. I actually find the AP A curriculum restrictive.

  7. Well, yes, high school counselors do have relationships with college admissions officers, but those people come and go on both sides, and then you’re often relying on a course title as depicted in the college transcript, which is sometimes all a college admissions officer sees. AP, for better or worse, has become shorthand for most admissions officers to see that students are taking more challenging courses. Seniors send off transcripts after 1st semester at the latest. We send them after the first quarter, often, primarily to show what courses said senior is taking. It shows whether they escape into basketweaving after 3 years of harder courses or if they continue challenging themselves. The tests do indeed come too late in most cases for admissions (unless students take the courses and the tests as juniors; I did this for one class myself as a junior). It’s the signal of the course itself that helps with the admissions process.

    Yes, the AP curriculum is restrictive and yes, those who teach it should be able to come up with their own courses, but sometimes those teachers don’t have time. I know you have schools near you where classes have 30-40 students in them and teachers have 5 or 6 preps. Given the choice to teach an accepted already made curriculum that may be restrictive vs. coming up with their own course, many teachers will choose the former, just to save time and they know they’re not doing a huge disservice by doing that.

  8. But the the College Board doesn’t really provide a syllabus — we all have to submit them for approval. There are samples on line, but they’re not really any more useful than the course syllabi and course outlines one can find by looking up college 101/102 courses (which is what AP should basically be anyway) – the college sites have the advantages of having problem sets, homeworks, projects, and even exams.

  9. Right. I get that, and maybe for CS, it’s different than for, say, chemistry, where there are a host of textbooks, etc. to support teaching an AP course. And, as you can tell, my experience with it is limited. I’ve never had to teach AP.

Comments are closed.