Computing Profession

A Call to Action For Higher Education to Make AP CS Principles Work

Mark Guzdial

In May 2017, the Advanced Placement (AP) examination in CS Principles (AP CSP) will be offered for the first time. (See the AP CS Principles website.) The first high school classes to prepare students for the exam will be starting this coming Fall 2016. The existing AP CS Level A exam is not going away. (See the APCS website here.)

The AP CSP course and exam were created to provide a more welcoming, a more generally useful, and a less programming-intense introduction to computer science. Individual states make up elementary and secondary school policy in the U.S. Creating a new AP course in CS is a way of providing a new path into CS to everyone. U.S. high schools want to offer AP courses to their students. Having more high schools offering a more accessible AP computing class can help to increase access to high-quality computing education at the high school level — if students take the class.

It's in the interest of computing departments in higher education to support AP CSP, in order to get a more diverse student body interested in CS and coming to our campuses. For AP CSP work, CS faculty at colleges and universities need to take action. Let me explain what I mean in terms of three questions — whose answers I don't know.

Question 1: Will College and Universities offer CSP-equivalent classes? The Wikipedia page on Advanced Placement explains the program this way:

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program in the United States and Canada, created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. American colleges and universities often grant placement and course credit to students who obtain high scores on the examinations…Some colleges use AP test scores to exempt students from introductory coursework, others use them to place students in higher designated courses, and some do both.

In general, AP courses are designed to replicate existing college-level introductory courses. AP CS A is explicitly designed to be like existing introductory computer science courses ("CS1") across the United States and Canada. CSP is different, because it's being created from scratch by the College Board with US National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.

Will CS departments start offering CSP-like courses? Based on Philip Guo's recent analysis of introductory courses at universities, there's not much sign that CSP courses are being created (see blog post here). I'm not even sure that those who initially offered CSP will keep doing so. My institution was one of the pilot sites that offered CSP at the college-level (see list of pilot sites here). There are no current plans at Georgia Tech to offer the course ever again. Since it wasn't a requirement for anyone, few students signed up for the pilot offering. Giving the massive enrollment surge, there is little appetite for creating and offering additional classes — especially when no degree programs on our campus require anything like CSP.

Question 2: Will colleges and universities give placement or credit for a course that they don't offer? I don't know how all universities deal with AP credit. At Georgia Tech, we can only give credit for an existing course. An AP course might count as taking some course, or might allow you to skip to a more advanced course. If we don't offer a CSP-like course, we can't give credit for it.

We do offer a Media Computation introductory course in computing for non-CS majors. If a student was admitted to Georgia Tech having passed the AP CSP exam, we might give them credit for the Media Computation. The problem is that our non-majors course has much more programming in it than AP CSP, and there is a pathway from the Media Computation course into other CS courses. If students come in with CSP credit and choose to take more CS courses on that pathway, they won't have the background to succeed.

Question 3: Will high school students take AP CSP if it doesn't count for credit or placement? Students take AP classes for a variety of reasons. My daughter is a high school senior, and she's been taking AP classes to demonstrate to college admissions officers that she can handle rigorous courses. But she is picking AP classes that she thinks are relevant to her college plans.

Some high school teachers have told me that their students choose AP courses in order to decrease their future college costs. High school AP classes are typically far cheaper than college classes. Taking equivalent classes at the high school level buys college credits at a lower cost. If the AP class has no college credit equivalent, it may be less attractive to the students who care about the credit or placement.

Action Item: Come up with an AP CSP Plan. US college and university CS departments need to figure out their plans for how they will handle students who are admitted having passed the AP CS Principles exam. We need to be able to explain how AP CSP will count in our programs. In my institution, some possible options (like creating new classes, or getting other degree programs to offer credit for new classes) take a long lead time.

For students who care about whether AP courses count for credit or placement, we should have answers for them soon, as they plan to register for the Fall 2016 school year. We need to be able to tell high school principals and teachers that it's worthwhile to offer the course and high school students that it's worthwhile to take the course. The time to figure that out is now.

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