Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

April, 2008

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    College Board to discontinue the AP CS AB exam


    Well the news hit like a thunderclap in the Advanced Placement Computer Science world today - the College Board has decided to discontinue the AP CS AB exam after next school year. That will leave one AP CS exam, the A exam, rather than the two course sequence that exists today. I'm still thinking about all the ramifications but (and regular readers of mine will not be surprised) I have some thoughts.

    Is this a sudden change?

    Yes it is. I heard no talk about it about a month ago at SIGCSE where I talked to a number of people from College Board and people on the test development committee. Everyone I have heard from was surprised.

    Secondly this is about as fast as it can happen. Schools have the AB course in their course catalogues  and have signed up students for next year. Dropping the exam for next year would have been very disruptive and likely have been politically unacceptable. Some people are going to be unhappy as it is.

    Why would they do this?

    I think this is clearly a financial decision. The exams that are being cut (Italian, French and Latin exams are also being cut back) are among the exams with the lowest numbers of test takers. It is expensive to create, maintain and grade these exams.  The College Board says they want to provide more supporting materials for teachers and that suggests that non-money-making exams will have to be cut.

    What does it mean for schools?

    • Schools that only offer the A course (roughly equivalent to CS1 in university) will be largely unaffected unless or until the A exam is changed (more on that below). These are the majority of schools.
    • Schools that only offer the AB course will probably offer the A course. However since many of them have a pre-requisite course that covers most of the A material this change may mean that they drop that course. They may start looking for an advanced course to follow up after the A course. Some schools will drop teachers though.
    • Schools that currently offer both the A and AB course will be very likely to look for or create an advanced course to follow the A course. They will be looking to keep students fully engaged and teachers fully employed. On the down side some schools will see this as an opportunity to cut back and save money. That will put additional stress on teachers and administrators.

    What is the future for the AP CS A exam?

    Only time will tell of course but there are some clues available already. A member of the AP Computer Science Course and Exam Review Commission sent out the following message today.

    “Last week, the College Board’s Trustees made a decision that has direct relationship to the work we are asking you to help us do over the coming months. Given the steady decline of student and teacher participation in the Computer Science AB program, it will be discontinued following the May 2009 AP Exam administration. A much larger number of students and teachers participate in the AP Computer Science A program, which is designed to reflect one semester of college Computer Science, but we see a need to ensure that the AP Computer Science A course that is so much more popular is replaced, in time, with the best possible one-year college-level in Computer Science. After you have helped us to identify the ideal future state of one, single, full-year AP Computer Science course, we’ll then plan how to implement the professional development and the changes, incrementally if necessary, to expand the scope of the current Computer Science A courses to the ideal state.”

    My take on that is that the A exam may be seriously changed over the next several years. The wording above suggests that the A exam will become more like the AB exam. I can see that getting some resistance.  I do not know if this will result in considering other (other than Java) programming languages but that is a possibility.  Personally I hope so but I never did like Java.

    For the next several years I expect the A exam to remain mostly the same though because of the work involved in creating a new exam and retraining teachers. Well what are you hearing? Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just maybe an ugly thing?

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Is There A Future For High School Computer Science?


    OK that is a fairly provocative title. But I think it is actually a fair and reasonable question. The decision last week to drop one of the Advanced Placement Computer Science exams (which I discussed here) has brought a whole new level of discussion about computer science education in general and high school computer science education in particular. Now clearly I believe that it is important that these is a future for high school computer science but doing the right thing is not necessarily a part of the educational process.

    So what has the discussion been looking like? If you follow your news in the main stream media or just on blogs you probably haven't heard much of the discussion. So far it appears that the discussion has been taking place on mailing lists. Not exclusively of course. The one news story I have seen so far was this one in the Washington Post.

    Cay Horstmann has a blog post titled Is Computer Science the New Latin? That post shows the enrollment numbers for the last several years in the AP CS exams. Cay also has some suggestions for what people in industry can do to help promote computer science as a field. I'm going to have some more suggestions about that in the coming days. Industry really does have to help if we don't want to see the shortage of qualified people drop still more.

    Dave Warlick has a post that starts off being about the four exams that are being dropped but ends with discussion of the AP CS AB exam and related issues. He makes a couple of good points including "I remain convinced that the problem has much more to do with how we teach computer science than the tests we give at the end." This is a concern that is being expressed by more and more CS education professionals as well.

    Tom Finin has some numbers about the overall drop in computer science enrollment in his post. You'll see those numbers a lot if you dig into the problem. Tom points out a common belief (which I share) that "Eliminating the computer science AP test will discourage high schools from offering computer science courses and their students from taking them." If this day of No Child Left Behind all electives are under serious strain. At many schools the only reason computer science survives is the allure and prestige of that AP designation. Now one AP exam remains but as I pointed out the other day changes are in store. Will all schools be able to keep up? I have my doubts.

    The discussion in the mailing lists has been different in interesting ways between how high school teachers and college/university faculty are reacting to the news.

    The high school people are responding primarily to the loss of the test and what he means to enrollment and to the value of the test. Many people believe that the AB exam, which has been cut, is the one that should remain because it is the more valuable course. Others are discussing the possible changes to the one remaining exam and if or how much like the current AB exam it will become. All good questions/issues. This has very definite short term consequences for high school CS people.

    The higher ed people are using this largely as a discussion of larger issues - dealing with declining enrollment, how do we teach computer science, what should the CS1 & CS2 courses look like, and other important pedagogical issues. Frankly I think these are wonderful discussions to have and I'm very glad they are going on. It doesn't help the high school situation much in the short term though. Still I am learning a lot from it.

    I've been thinking about what I think the AP CS exam should become BTW but I'll wait for another post to lay that out. In the mean time I see losing one of the two APCS exams as a huge blow to the prestige of CS education. I can see that in the long term a single exam/course may be a good thing as long as it is the right curriculum. I also believe that for it to be successful on any level there has to be a clear and strongly recommended prerequisite course. Sure college students can jump right into CS 1 but a) in practice that doesn't work as well as people like the think and b) high school kids are not college kids. They need a head start. I don't believe that many high school students can really handle a year long college course in a high school year. (If nothing else there are not as many study hours per course in high school.)

    In the near term this change is going to effect how administrators view CS's importance relative to other areas. The same is true for students and their parents. Plus of course many students will just take one course when they would otherwise have taken two. I just wish higher education, though their admissions officers, would express some sort of preference for a real computer science course on transcripts for students applying to science, technology, engineering and math programs. That would help more than almost anything else I can think of.

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    Is It Ever Too Early To Teach Security?


    About 25 years ago, back in the mini-computer era, I was a developer in an operating system group. My team was working on a brand new print and batch spooling system. We were creating a system with a lot more power and flexibility than the previous system. Plus we were working with an operating system that was making changes to the security/privilege model. Very early on in the design process we started talking about system security. Because things were getting more complex we wanted to make sure that we didn't open new security holes. And of course plugging any existing ones was a thought as well.

    Security was part of the plan from the beginning. We convinced the core OS team to add some features just for us to make sure that communication was more reliable and to make it less easy to fake credentials. That benefited others as well of course and I think ultimately made the whole OS more secure. But the main point is that we designed security in from the start. It wasn't something that we retrofitted or added on later as part of a separate security initiative.

    I've been out of the OS development business for a long time now but security of applications is something that is still near and dear to my heart. It's hard to teach in early computer science classes though because the projects are, for the most part, small, simple and artificial. But I still think that it is something that should be talked about and hopefully thought about.

    Along those lines I came across some useful and free information about Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle. Michael Howard, Principal Security Program Manager, has written a short article titled "Building Security into Windows Vista and the Microsoft Culture" that talks about the cultural change that had to be made at Microsoft and that has to be made at many places to really get security right.

    Related to this is a new document called "Security Development Lifecycle Guidance" that is available as a free download (registration is optional but recommended if you're really interested in this topic.) I think the introduction would be a reasonable read and kick off for discussion with a class of students. If you are in the target audience for the book (policy makers and software development organizations) by all means you'll want to read it all.

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