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Share of Girls Taking AP Computer Science Tests Grew in 2017

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Girls' participation in AP Computer Science tests boomed last year—largely thanks to a brand-new, broader course offering with less of an emphasis on programming. 

All in all, about 29,700 girls took either the AP Computer Science A test or a new exam that debuted this year, AP Computer Science Principles, according to the data released by Code.org, a nonprofit supporting computer science education. More than 111,000 students took the test in all, twice as many as the previous year.

That means girls have crossed a key milestone: they make up more than a quarter of the students who sat for one of the computer science tests in 2017, at 27 percent. That's up from just 18 percent a decade ago.

More than half of girls took the new AP Computer Science Principles test. It's the capstone of a more flexible AP course that covers topics such as database analysis and Internet security, as well as permitting teachers to select which coding language to teach. Computer Science A is much more narrowly focused on programming in the Javascript language. 

The number of students of color taking the exams also rose to about 22,000, or 20 percent of the tested pool. Their growth, too, was concentrated in the new exam. About 59 percent of students of color took AP Computer Science Principles. 

The class was created partly with funding from the National Science Foundation; Code.org created a matching curriculum and also trained many of the teachers who rolled the course out this past academic year. The group's chief operating officer, Cameron Wilson, said that the course was specifically designed to engage a broader segment of the population after much hand-wringing over the lack of diversity in programming classes.

"AP Computer Science Principles is a college level course," he said. "It's just a different kind of class [from Computer Science A]. The rigor is still there; it's intended to allow students to get college credit," he said.

There were gains among girls in AP Computer Science A as well, but much slower ones. "We still have a long way to go to get gender balance," Wilson said.  

Policy Attention on Computer Science Grows

Many more states now let coding or computer science count as a math or science class, rather than an elective; some whole districts, like San Francisco and Chicago, have dramatically increased the number of students taking computer science. That's in no small part to to the efforts of groups like Code.org, which have been enormously successful in building teacher and policymaker interest in coding.

The group also generally supports the legislative efforts to expand computer science, though not all of them; the group opposed legislation that would allow coding classes to substitute for foreign language.

Its push hasn't come without criticism, though: A New York Times story recently questioned whether such efforts were more self-serving for the tech industry than aimed at strengthening secondary science curricula.

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