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April 15, 2011 / Ben Chun

Something is Rotten

While most US high school computer science classes are reviewing like mad for the AP exam (18 days from today!), Cay Horstmann, author of Big Java, Java Concepts, and the AP CS GridWorld case study says:

“Standardized exams are dull. You think AP CS is dull? Look at AP Calculus to see how all life has been sucked out of a discipline. And they are dull by necessity. They must be easy to administer and easy to grade. That’s why the AP CS exam has inane multiple-choice questions and a pencil-and-paper programming part that rewards fast scribbling of an approximation of the proper incantations.”

More and more high schools are moving beyond the AP exam and curriculum in all subjects. We’ve been saying that AP classes both help our students get into college and save money on credits when they get there. The former seems to be demonstrably unnecessary, the latter I’m less sure about.

So let us wax desperate with imagination for a moment: What if we weren’t bound to the AP curriculum? What should high school computer science look like? In other words, what are the skills, knowledge, and experiences that will support success in both university-level computer science and in computational thinking across disciplines? Or do we need to separate majors from non-majors at the high school level?

5 Comments

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  1. baryonic / Apr 15 2011 7:08 pm

    In defense of APs, they actually can help you graduate early. And I found the AP Calculus curriculum to be anything but soulless—it was astoundingly satisfying.

    But many independent schools are moving away from APs, including my alma mater! I’m glad there’s more of a focus on and shift toward inquiry-based, big picture education, rather than teaching for an inane multiple-choice exam.

  2. Benjamin Gleitzman / Apr 15 2011 7:16 pm

    We’ve been duped by the College Board. Ultimately, I believe you’ve got to look beyond the credits, beyond the admissions process and beyond success in university-level courses.

    At its heart computer science is a way to talk precisely about a process. You’re learning a way of thinking that can be applied to a myriad of realms, some of which involve neither a computer nor the sciences.

    High school computer science must be fun and must capture the imagination of the students we teach or we’re doomed to produce graduates who care only for grades and the one-upmanship that destroys collaboration and collective creative power. This is, as you’ve mentioned, inherently difficult to grade on paper.

    Blasphemous as it may be, eschew the College Board and its stranglehold on education. Teach students in small batches around projects for which they can be passionate. Teach the ‘how-to’ knowledge that can by used in various disciplines rather than arcane syntax that is mindlessly memorized. And keep it fun, for computer science is the closest thing I’ve found to magic.

  3. Alfred Thompson / Apr 16 2011 5:49 am

    I am not convinced that graduating early is a good thing. I loaded up on classes in college and could have graduated early. I discovered a new major program though and was able to sign up for it. I graduated on time but with only a few credits short of two degrees (BS and BA) but for me the benefit was taking all those “extra” courses. When it came my son’s time to schedule his graduation we encouraged him to take the extra semester to not graduate mid-year but to use the time to take a couple of extra courses. So if students use their AP credit to learn more things and take more classes I’m good with it. But graduating early seems too limiting to me.
    And the APCS course is boring. It was boring to teach and I am sure to take. I wanted to replace it when I was teaching but the presure to offer AP courses was too strong to resist for the administration.

  4. gasstationwithoutpumps / Apr 16 2011 8:47 am

    I took AP exams a long time ago, when they were not shaping curriculum anywhere and no one was “teaching to the test”. The advanced courses I took in high school were intended to be the equivalent of university courses (not community college remedial classes, as many of the worst AP courses are modeled on).

    I finished my BS in 3 years, then spent 8 years in grad school. This was a good thing—I learned a hell of a lot more in the more open format of grad school than I did as an undergrad, and I did it on someone else’s dime.

    The AP exams are not a terrible thing, and many AP courses are better than the equivalent college courses at places that have 400-student lectures by overworked lecturers. There is no reason to make a course soulless just because there is a test at the end that you don’t create. A well-taught computer science class will cover all the concepts needed for the AP CS exam, and the only downside to preparing students for the AP exam is that you have to teach them Java (which is not a terrible choice for the 2nd or 3rd programming language they learn, but is rather awkward for the 1st programming language).

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