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No Girls, Blacks, or Hispanics Take AP Computer Science Exam in Some States

A new analysis of test-taking data finds that in Mississippi and Montana, no female, African American, or Hispanic students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science

In fact, no African-American students took the exam in a total of 11 states, and no Hispanic students took it in eight states, according to state comparisons of College Board data compiled by Barbara Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech

The College Board, which oversees AP, notes on its website that in 2013 about 30,000 students total took the AP exam for computer science, a course in which students learn to design and create computer programs. Less than 20 percent of those students were female, about 3 percent were African American, and 8 percent were Hispanic (combined totals of Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic).

Deborah Davis, spokeswoman for the College Board, wrote in an email, "We were not surprised by Barbara Ericson's findings because unfortunately, computing courses have historically been dominated by white, male students."

Even so, Ericson's breakdown of the test-takers offers a stark illustration of gender and racial inequities at the high school level. And it comes at a time when the College Board has stepped up its focus on seeing that traditionally underrepresented groups of students have access to AP courses and tests.

In the 47 states where girls took the computer science exam, the percentage of female test-takers ranged from about 4 percent in Utah to 29 percent in Tennessee.

Maryland had the largest percentage of African-American test-takers, at 10 percent (170 students). Texas had the largest percentage of Hispanic students take the exam, at 18 percent (751 students).

In an interview, Ericson told me that a few points surprised her in the data, including that Mississippi, where 37 percent of the total population is African American, was one of the states with no African-American test-takers. It was also a bit surprising that so few African-American students (74) took the test in California, she said—but the pass rate for African-American students there was above many states', at almost 57 percent.

In Alabama, she noted, six of the eight African-American test-takers passed the exam. "It's sad that there were only six, but it's good that they're doing a good job," she said.

Pass rates overall for females, African Americans, and Hispanics were below those of white males on the AP computer science exam, she said. Students in those three groups "are not taking the exam in representative numbers, but even the ones that are taking it are not necessarily passing," she said. "Especially black students—they have a lower pass rate than any other race."

One complicating factor, Ericson said, is that AP computer science courses "are more prevalent in suburban and private schools than in urban, poor schools." About 2,300 high schools are officially recognized by the College Board as offering AP computer science for 2013-14—a fraction of the 15,000 high schools that offer some type of AP course, she noted.

Ericson also mentioned that only 17 states now accept computer science as a core math or science credit. (In May, we reported that only 10 states did so, but she said the landscape is changing quickly.)

Davis of the College Board emphasized the need to put the numbers in context. Mississippi only administered one AP computer science exam, she wrote, and Montana only administered 11. Wyoming, which Ericson points to as a place with no female or minority test-takers in her analysis, did not have any test-takers at all. 

"That said, the College Board is deeply committed to increasing access to rigorous computing courses, particularly for underrepresented female and minority students," wrote Davis. "In order to address this issue, we are collaborating with national organizations, other nonprofits and the private sector to ensure expanded access." She pointed to Code.org, which I covered here recently, as an example of an organization that is also focusing on this area. 


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