Expanding Advanced Placement Computer Science in Chicago

Researchers at The Learning Partnership recently had several papers accepted to the 2020 International Conference of the Learning Sciences. One of the papers detailed an analysis of the expansion of Advanced Placement Computer Science (AP CS) courses in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The paper reports that district-wide efforts to increase AP participation across all subjects, along with the introduction of the AP Computer Science Principles course in 2017, appear to be working to broaden participation among underrepresented students. The data from Chicago show that the district is making progress in expanding college-level coursework in computer science, particularly through the AP Computer Science Principles course. There is much more work to be done, particularly in expanding access to more non-selective high schools in the district and in working toward equitable success for all students in the AP CS courses. We continue to work with our CPS partners in supporting and studying the expansion of advanced coursework in computer science. This study suggests, however, that early efforts at expansion have been successful and that the district is moving in the right direction toward building K-12 computer science pathways and ensuring “Computer Science for All.”

In this post, we highlight the context and details of some of the findings from the study. A prepublication version of the paper can be found here

Project Origins

The study came about as a way to help inform the ongoing work of the Office of Computer Science in CPS to develop accessible, high quality K-12 computer science pathways for students. This effort to scale up computer science education has been a challenge for districts and states across the U.S. Nationally, only about 45% of high schools teach computer science (2019 State of Computer Science Education, 2019). Additionally, although there is no data on how many students are taking computer science at the national level, scholars have used state-level data to estimate that no more than about 4% of high school students in the U.S. take a computer science course (Guzdial, 2019).

Here in Chicago, the situation is quite different than these national trends. In CPS, as the result of a strong “CS4All” movement advocating for computer science for all Chicago students, high school students in the district are now required to take computer science in order to graduate. Most students fulfill this requirement by taking Exploring Computer Science, an introductory CS course that emphasizes computational thinking and the core concepts of computer science. The Office of Computer Science in CPS wants to ensure that students have opportunities beyond the initial CS course and, in particular, wants to support all students to participate and succeed in earning early college credit in CS through AP or dual credit courses. 

There are two AP computer science courses. The first, AP Computer Science A, has long been a part of the College Board’s AP offerings. The second, AP Computer Science Principles, is a newly developed course that was first offered as an AP course to students in 2017. Computer Science Principles was developed through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the College Board with the explicit goal of introducing computer science to a broader range of high school students. Both courses are currently offered in CPS.

Over the past decade, there has been a district-wide effort to increase access and success in AP courses across all subject areas.  One indicator of the district’s success in scaling AP is that since 2011, the number of students taking AP courses has increased by 53%, despite gradual yearly declines in overall student enrollment in the district (Chicago Public Schools, 2018).

Access to AP Computer Science in Chicago

This research sought to understand the current state of access and effectiveness of AP computer science programming in Chicago, with a particular focus on the newly introduced AP CS Principles course. Our first research question asked whether the district was successfully broadening participation in AP computer science. To answer this question, we examined enrollment data for both AP computer science courses (CS-A and CS Principles) for the 2018-2019 school year. The majority of students in Chicago who took an AP computer science course were enrolled in the CS Principles course (79%). We found that AP computer science courses in Chicago were more equitable overall in terms of access for underrepresented students than AP computer science courses nationally. Specifically, higher percentages of African American and Latinx students participated in AP computer science courses in CPS than the national averages. In particular, we found that the AP CS Principles course appears to be more equitable than AP CS-A in terms of access for underrepresented students.

In addition to comparisons to national averages, we also examined the extent to which schools offering AP computer science courses are representative of the district and whether AP participation within these schools is evenly distributed. Our analysis showed that district schools offering AP computer science were not representative of CPS high schools overall in terms of racial and ethnic composition. Schools offering AP computer science have substantially lower percentages of African American students and higher percentages of Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and White students. Asian and White students, in particular, are highly overrepresented in AP schools compared to district averages. 

There is a similar pattern within AP computer science schools. Specifically, there are lower percentages of African American and Latinx students in computer science courses compared to the overall student percentages in those schools. Additionally, about 73% of students in the dataset were from selective enrollment high schools. In Chicago, 11 of the district’s 93 high schools have been labeled as selective enrollment schools because they admit students based on prior academic achievement and offer high-achieving students a challenging academic experience.  

Success in AP CS Principles

Given that AP CS Principles more closely represented the overall population of students in the district, we were interested in beginning to examine the extent to which Chicago students are successful in this course and earn a credit-granting score on the exam. We first looked at mean AP CS Principles exam scores for CPS students by race/ethnicity and found that both African American and Latinx students had lower average scores than Asian and White students. We then used student scores on the AP exam as the outcome of interest in a multilevel model that included students’ demographic characteristics and preparation as predictor variables, while controlling for several teacher preparation factors. Our modeling indicated that there were several factors that were statistically significantly associated with AP CS Principles exam score. We found, for example, that female students scored lower than male students, even after controlling for student and teacher preparation factors. After factoring differences in Math GPA, we did not see significant differences in the race/ethnicity predictors in the model, which was promising. Math GPA was significant and positively associated with exam score. Given that average math GPAs vary substantially by race/ethnicity, this is an area that warrants further investigation.