AP Exams Show Lack of Diversity in K-12 Computer Science

— Daniel Berti

RICHMOND, Va. -- White and Asian high school students in Virginia take AP Computer Science exams at higher rates than any other ethnic group, and male students take the exam more than twice as often as female students, according to AP testing data archived by The College Board, an educational non-profit.

African American, Hispanic and Native American students in Virginia take the AP Computer Science exam at disproportionately lower rates than white and Asian students, and female students represent less than one quarter of the total AP Computer Science exams taken in Virginia between 2012 and 2018.

The overall number of exams taken by Virginia students has increased dramatically -- 5,005 students took an AP Computer Science exam in 2018, up from 1,430 in 2012 -- but the percentage of underrepresented ethnic groups taking the exam didn’t change all that much.

Of the exams taken in 2018, 2,227 were taken by white students, 1,629 were taken by Asian students, 391 were taken by Hispanic students, and 313 were taken by African American students.

White males took 1,744 of those exams, and Asian males took 1,105 -- only 101 exams were taken by African American females, and 98 exams were taken by Hispanic females. Five Native American students took the AP Computer Science exam in Virginia in 2018.

The percentage of African American students who have taken the exam increased by 2% between 2012 and 2018, and the percentage of Hispanic students increased by 4% between 2012 and 2018. The percentage of white students who have taken the exam decreased by about 7% between 2012 and 2018, and the percentage of Asian students increased by 1%.

The percentage of girls who took the AP Computer Science exam increased by 9.3% -- from 17.5% in 2012 to 26.8% in 2018.

The AP Computer Science Principles exam was introduced alongside the AP Computer Science A exam in 2017. The AP Computer Science A exam was the only AP computer science course offered until that point.

The AP Computer Science Principles course introduces students to foundational concepts and explores real-world impacts of computing and technology. The AP Computer Science A exam covers the fundamentals of programming and requires students to demonstrate their ability to design, write and analyze programs.

Nationally, the technology sector has struggled to overcome racial imbalances in its workforce. A 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the tech sector employed a larger share of whites, Asian Americans and men, and a smaller share of African Americans, Hispanics, and women.

The study found that whites represented 83.3% of the highest level jobs in the technology sector, while African Americans, Hispanics and Asians were represented at significantly lower rates.

The technology sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, and has become a major source of economic growth. Virginia has the highest number of per capita computer science jobs of any state in the country, and the state has over 33,000 unfilled computer science jobs.

Computer science education specialists in Virginia say they’re aware of the racial and gender imbalances in K-12 computer science and are taking steps to address the issue. They say fixing the problem begins with student access to computer science education at a young age.

Keisha Tennessee is the computer science specialist at CodeRVA Regional High School in Richmond, a computer-focused magnet school founded in 2017 that serves 13 central Virginia school divisions.

“I think Virginia is being aggressive in making sure that we are getting computer science down from middle to elementary. But ultimately it starts with the equity piece, really shifting the mindset of who computer scientists are, that it’s not just white men,” Tennessee said. “Ideally it’s about equity and finding connections within computer science that everyone has.”

The Virginia Department of Education has created computer science standards as young as kindergarten, but providing access to all students remains a challenge. Only 158 schools in Virginia offered an AP Computer Science course in 2017-2018, according to Code.org, a national educational non-profit.

Chris Dovi, executive director of CodeVA, an educational non-profit that trains teachers in computer science instruction, said it’s been an uphill battle to bring computer science learning into the classroom in Virginia.

“Computer science has been a very slow moving thing,” Dovi said. “In Virginia, it’s been a freight train.”

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