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Still No African-Americans Taking the AP Computer Science Exam in Nine States

The pool of test-takers for the Advanced Placement computer science exam is still overwhelmingly white and male, according to data from the College Board, which administers the AP tests.

The number of students taking the AP computer science exam increased by about 24 percent from last year, up to 46,000 U.S. students, according to numbers released this fall. That's less growth than the exam showed the year before (it was up about 26 percent then), but still more growth than any other AP course except physics. Maryland was the state with the most test-takers overall by population. 

The AP computer science exam has traditionally suffered from a lack of racial and gender diversity, and this year's administration was no exception. 

The number of female test-takers in computer science went up slightly over the year—but the group is still severely underrepresented at just 22 percent. The percentage of test-takers who were members of underrepresented minorities (that is, students who are not white or Asian) went up just half a percentage point, to 13 percent. 

The College Board recently released even more detailed demographic data about test-takers in each state. Barbara Ericson, the director of computing outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, went through the data, as she does every year, to see among other things, how girls and African-Americans are faring in computer science across the states. Here's some of what she found:

Girls

  • Ten states had fewer than 10 girls take the exam.
  • No girls took the exam in Mississippi, Montana, or Wyoming. (Though Montana had no test-takers at all, male included, this year. Wyoming, which previously had no students take the test, had three boys take the exam in 2015).
  • Hawaii had the largest percentage of female test-takers, with 33 percent.
  • The overall female pass rate went up 3 percentage points, to 61 percent, from the year before.
  • In Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin, girls were more likely to pass than boys.
  • Twenty-four girls took the test in Iowa, and 100 percent of them passed.

"You don't usually see 100 percent passing with numbers that big," said Ericson. "Maybe five out of five pass. But 24 out of 24 is pretty cool."

African-American Students

  • Twenty-three states had fewer than 10 black students take the exam. 
  • No African-American students took the exam in nine states: Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. That's better than last year, though, when 13 states had no African-American test-takers.
  • Notably, Mississippi has the highest population of African-Americans—about half of the state's high school graduates last year were black, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Yet of the five AP computer science test-takers, all were white or Asian and male.
  • The District of Columbia had the largest percentage of African-American test-takers, at 22 percent. (Just under half of the district's population is African-American.)
  • The overall pass rate for black students went up, from 33 percent in 2014 to 38 percent in 2015. But it varied significantly from state to state. In New Jersey, 66 percent of black students passed the exam. In Oklahoma, the pass rate was 13 percent.
  • Even so, the pass rate for African-Americans was still the lowest of any other racial subgroup. (Ericson notes this is true for many AP exams.) 

In an attempt to make the subject more accessible to all students, the College Board is introducing a new course in 2016 called AP Computer Science Principles. That course will focus on a broader range of computing skills and allows teachers to select the programming language they'd like to teach. 

Last year, the algebra-based Physics B course was split into two courses, Physics 1 and Physics 2—and a huge jump in enrollment ensued. The percentage of female students and underrepresented minority students taking a physics test went up as well. "I wonder if the same thing will happen in computer science next year" with the new course available, said Ericson.


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