There is often a focus on quantity in our society. Let’s get more apps! Lets get more students taking the AP course! Lets get more [you name it]? Unfortunately this focus on quantity sometimes means that quality takes a back seat. I mean really how many fart apps do you need for your smart phone? Barb Ericson and Mark Guzdial have been looking at the statistics for AP CS test takers and finding some interesting things. (see How White and Male the AP CS Really Is: Measuring Quality as well as Quantity ) It appears that not only is there a gap between white and minority students it taking the exam there is a gap in them passing percentage wise. The same is true of the gender gap. If it were not bad enough that so few under represented demographics were taking the exam is appears that they are passing at a lower rate as well. Why? Well I don’t think anyone knows for sure. But it is an issue we need to think about and take seriously.
I sure don't think that women and minorities are less capable than white males. There are other issues involved and some of them may be cultural and some of them may relate to how we teach and it may even relate to quality of teaching if I dare suggest such a thing. In another great article Mark Guzdial talks about Experience drives learning: Implications for CS Ed which highlights some factors that I think may come into play. White males tend to get more and earlier experience with computer applications and general computer usage in general. This suggests to me that we need more widespread and better introduction to computer applications and computer science ideas at younger ages. OK I thought that for a while anyway. But this adds justification for those who need some.
We have a well recognized shortage of good CS teachers as well. A lot of outreach efforts to under represented minorities involve training teachers to teach CS who are new to the field. It takes a while to get good at teaching APCS. It takes a while to get good at teaching anything really but when you are starting from a limited knowledge base it takes even longer. Will the teachers in heavily minority districts get better over time? If they get support, on going training, and are willing – sure! The question is how many and how quickly. But at least people are trying.
The other thing that concerns me in the numbers is the gender gap. If we assume that boy are doing better than girls in the same class (not a sure thing but perhaps a way to bet) that suggests we have a different set of problems. Is the difference because of different previous experiences or is it something that happens (or doesn’t) in the classroom? Back some years ago Carnegie Mellon had a summer program (offered three different summers) to try to help teachers learn to recruit, retain and properly teach girls. I sure learned a lot from that program and I like to think it helped. I never had enough girls to make up a good statistical sample though to judge the results with any reliability. I had some really smart and hard working girls in my classes when I did have girls though.
The lesson I take from this is that while we need to work hard on getting more women and minorities into CS courses we can’t stop there. We have to make sure that they have success – that they learn! Taking an AP course and passing the AP exam are not the same thing. The prize comes not from starting the race but finishing it.