Computer science education policies help stimulate broader participation

Providing young people with access to high-quality computer science education is increasingly seen as an urgent priority for public school systems in the United States and around the world. And that’s for good reason: Expansion of computer science education is expected to directly benefit students, promote sustainable economic growth, and help bridge historical gaps in technology fields.

The past decade has been an active period for expanding policies in computer science education across states and increasing student participation in computer science courses. However, little is known about how policies affect student participation in computer science. Today we released a new Brown Center report that offers an initial look at this relationship by exploring recent policy changes, student participation, and scores on advanced computer science (AP CS) exams. This post summarizes the five primary lessons that emerged from our analysis.

1. We note sharp and simultaneous increases in both state adoption of computer science education policies and public participation in AP CS exams.

A team of organizations has been publishing the annual State of Computer Science Education Report since 2017, and in the few years of tracking policies through 2021, the reports document a marked shift in the policy landscape across states. For example, only one state—Arkansas—adopted at least seven of nine major computer science education policies when the series began in 2017, but 23 other states have joined by 2021.

At the same time, student participation in AP CS exams has grown rapidly. In 2012, fewer than 25,000 tests were taken in AP CS by public school students, but that number has risen to more than 150,000 by 2020 – an increase of more than 500%.

2. AP CS participation rates for all student subgroups also increased, with representation gaps between student groups narrowing.

Technology fields have long been dominated by white, Asian, and male students, although many computer science education initiatives now aim to reverse these gaps. Our analysis showed an encouraging increase in participation among all student subgroups, with historically underrepresented groups—black, Latino, and female students—making progress toward parity, even if gaps persist.

3. The primary impetus for narrowing the participation gaps was the introduction of a new AP CS (Principles of CS) test, with little change in the gaps since then.

Much of this growth in participation among underrepresented groups has been associated with the introduction of the new AP CS (AP Principles of Computer Science) test in 2017 designed to test students on more foundational computer science subjects, compared to the more established AP CS A test. This new course and test offer has attracted a more diverse pool of test takers, but the increase in the proportion of tests given by underrepresented racial and ethnic groups has slowed in recent years.

4. Pass rates for AP CS tests increased slightly for underrepresented student groups during this period, resulting in slightly narrower success gaps.

Underrepresented students are not only more likely to participate in AP CS over time, but also more likely to pass AP CS exams. Since 2012, success gaps have narrowed by race and gender on both AP CS exams; A great result considering the increased participation over the same period.

5. AP CS student participation is generally associated with increased computer science policy adoption, although participation gaps between over- and under-represented groups appear to be unrelated to recent policy adoption.

We found evidence that the adoption of computer science education policies stimulates broader participation in computer science in countries. Specifically, policies that boost computer science funding, require high schools to offer computer science, and have state colleges count computer science classes as STEM classes show the highest gains associated with student participation. However, we find little evidence to believe that these recent policy changes have helped to narrow participation gaps among student subgroups.

Computing and technology will be an integral part of the economic and social future that awaits today’s school children. Providing access to high-quality computer science education will be essential in ensuring that all students can meet this future head-on.

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