Exploring the state of computer science education amid rapid policy expansion

The role of computers in daily life and the economy grows yearly, and that trend is only expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Those who learn and master computer science (CS) skills are widely expected to enjoy increased employment opportunities and more flexibility in their futures, though the U.S. currently produces too few specialists to meet future employment demands. Thus, providing exposure to CS during compulsory schooling years is believed to be key to maintaining economic growth, increasing employment outcomes for individuals, and reducing historical gaps in participation in technology fields by gender and race. Consequently, providing young people with access to quality CS education is increasingly seen as an urgent priority for public school systems in the U.S. and around the globe.

Primary objectives of CS education, as described in the “K-12 Computer Science Framework”—a guiding document assembled by several CS and STEM education groups in collaboration with school leaders across the country—are to help students “develop as learners, users, and creators of computer science knowledge and artifacts” (p. 10) and to understand the general role of computing in society. CS skills enable individuals to understand how technology works and how best to harness its potential in their personal and professional lives. CS education is distinct from digital literacy as it is primarily concerned with computer design and operations, rather than the simple use of computer software. Common occupations that heavily utilize CS skills include software engineers, data scientists, and computer network managers; however, as described below, CS skills are becoming more integral to many occupations in the economy beyond technology fields.

The past decade has been an active period of policy expansion in CS education across states and growing student engagement in CS courses. Yet, little is known about how policies may have influenced student outcomes. This report offers a first look at the relationship between recent policy changes and participation, as well as pass rates on the Advanced Placement Computer Science (AP CS) exams.

Based on our analysis looking over the last decade, we present five key findings:

  1. We observe sharp, coinciding increases in both state adoption of CS education policies and overall participation in AP CS exams.
  2. AP CS participation rates for all student subgroups have also increased, with representation gaps between student groups narrowing.
  3. Narrowing participation gaps for females and especially Black and Latino students have been primarily driven by the introduction of a new AP CS exam (CS Principles), with gaps changing little since then.
  4. Passing rates on AP CS exams have modestly increased for underrepresented student groups during this period, resulting in slightly narrower passing gaps.
  5. AP CS student participation overall is associated with increased CS policy adoption, though participation gaps between over- and underrepresented groups appear to be uncorrelated with recent policy adoptions.

Providing universal access to CS education

CS education is undergoing an important transformation in schools. Classes in computing and CS have long been offered in K-12 public schools, though have not been uniformly required, nor universally available. Thus, access to CS has been uneven across student populations. Yet, the growing importance of technological and computing skills in modern society has compelled many school systems to adopt policies to provide universal access to CS education. Several reasons often motivate this expanded access.

First, expanding CS education is expected to directly benefit students. Individuals who develop expertise in computer and technology fields enjoy higher wages and employment. Even those who do not pursue technical occupations still reap these benefits, as computing and data analysis skills have been broadly integrated into many industries and occupations. Finally, CS education also benefits students who do not use computers in their future careers. Prior studies have documented cognitive and interpersonal skills that CS education uniquely provides to students, which transfer outside of computing domains. Moreover, understanding CS fundamentals contributes valuable life skills that prepare and protect students for a future in which many aspects of daily life are carried out in digital contexts.

“The growing importance of technological…

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