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.