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Communications of the ACM


Media Coverage of Analysis of AP CS 2013 Exam Results

Mark Guzdial

My wife and collaborator, Barbara Ericson, posts an annual analysis of data from the Advanced Placement Exam in Computer Science Level A (AP CS): here in 2010, here in 2011, and here in 2012. She looks at exam-taking numbers, pass rates, and progress towards broadening participation in computing. Her analysis of the 2013 results really struck a chord with the media. Maybe it's because she pulled out headline-worthy bullets like "No females took the exam in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming." Or it's because the Hour of Code was just the month before. In any case, the U.S. media paid attention.

It started with an article in EdWeek which asked for a response from the College Board. Barbara's results were then discussed in The Atlantic, Slate, Jezebel, Business Insider, and NBC News. On January 25, Barbara was interviewed on HLN television. And of course, there was the coverage in Slashdot, with typically horrible comments.

There was inevitable pushback. The Clarion Ledger pointed out that Barbara's analysis was misleading. "An analysis showing no female, black or Hispanic students took the advanced placement computer science test in Mississippi last year failed to reveal that only one student from the state took the test in 2013." Since Barbara's report included the spreadsheet with all the data, it's not clear how she "failed to reveal" that statistic.

USA Today did an interesting visualization to highlight just how gender-skewed the AP CS exam-takers were.




Several commenters noted that the visualization is misleading. It's using a linear scale to represent ratios, when a log-ratio scale would be clearer. Brian Danielak did a more careful analysis and came up with this better visualization. Brian's visualization also makes it clear how few high school students take the AP CS exam.




Kevin Karplus on his "Gas station without pumps" blog noted that some of the articles were doing a poor job with the statistics. He did a model-based analysis of Barbara's data. He was able to identify in which states was the under-representation truly significant.

My favorite press coverage of Barbara's results appeared in the NYTimes Bits blog. The reporter spent some time with Barbara and went beyond just the shocks in the 2013 results, e.g.:

The A.P. data also shows how the situation in computer science has worsened over time. In Wyoming, for instance, no high school student of any race or gender took the test, while 35 students took the test there in 2001.

My least favorite article was the Huffington Post article which used Barbara's results as an indication of how unimportant Computer Science is.

True, she was trying to point out there were too few computer science-focused girls compared to bio and math, but seriously, if that's our biggest problem...

Overall, I was thrilled to see so much press coverage, so much more awareness of the issues of under-representation in computer science as measured by AP CS demographics. I'm particularly happy to see how Barbara's results are influencing the discourse. The Seattle Times had an editorial about the need to increase STEM education funding in Washington, citing Barbara's results. Teachers in Virginia told us that Barbara's HLN TV interview was being emailed to legislators as they considered a bill to make CS count towards high school graduation there.

Here's hoping that this is an annual event and we'll see return coverage for Barbara's analysis of the 2014 AP CS results!


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