Last week there was an announcement of a multi-year $5.2 million grant from the NSF to fund creation of a new Advanced Placement Computer Science course called (working title at least) AP CS Principles. This is based on the work done by many over the last several years to create a new college level computer science course that would be accessible to more students and teachable by more teachers. (See the CS Principles website) Exciting news for many people who see a lot of potential in this course. But not everyone is excited.
A blogger and college professor who posts under the name of Gas Station Without Pumps took on the question on his blog with a post titled Millions for a fairly useless new test. He is skeptical that the course is really college level. I’ve heard the same thing expressed by others. Now the course, or some variation of it, is being taught at a good number of colleges and universities but as this blogger points out there are other courses offered that we don’t have AP level courses for because they are, perhaps, not such high level courses in the first place.
He also has some concerns that this “easier” AP CS course will eventually push out the more strenuous AP CS A (what I like to call APCS Java) course. I’m not so worried about that. I suspect that schools who teach APCS A now will use APCS P as a feeder course in hopes of expanding the total number of students learning computer science. This new course may help a lot of schools that currently only get to teach one CS course (APCS A) to expand to two courses.
Overall I continue to have mixed feelings about AP courses in general and AP CS courses in particular. On one hand AP courses give a subject a sort of legitimacy that they don’t always have without an AP course at the top of the scale. The states that allow for an AP course to count as a graduation credit in either math or science only allow the AP CS course to count. Will this new APCS course count in the same way that APCS A does now? One hopes so but nothing is certain.
It seems unlikely that in the current political climate we could get states to set a standard for a course that counts outside of the AP curriculum. This is something I believe needs to happen. We don’t see only AP courses counting for graduation in many (any?) other subjects do we? Schools with no AP courses at all manage to give out state backed diplomas as far as I can tell. This makes CS still very much a second class subject.
So there is good and bad in the APCS program. I think we will not really know if the new course is really college level until we see the way it is evaluated. For that we largely have to trust the people who develop the test and than see what universities decide to with with the results of the test. It’s a multi million dollar gamble for computer science education. NSF and other outside money (Google is spending some to support this as well) the College Board is largely getting a free ride. They have little to lose and much to gain.