Schools Failing to Prepare Students in Computer Science

Large technology firms like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter have spurred significant growth in the American economy. These companies hire large numbers of employees who are trained in computer science, pay them well, and position them to create new and innovative products that make all of our lives better.

These major players are not alone. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 30% increase in demand for software developers by 2020 (a growth rate they call “much faster than average” for the labor market as a whole). Estimated average pay for software developers was $90,530 per year in 2010.1 Similarly, in a 2012 survey of students and employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 52% of the 196 major companies it surveyed were hiring in the field of computer science.2 The BLS found similar high pay and high growth rates for computer and information systems managers (18% growth predicted by 2020 and an average salary of $115,780 per year),3 computer programmers (12% growth and $71,380 per year), computer systems analysts (22% growth and $77,740 per year), and database administrators (31% growth and $73,490 per year).4 In other words, in a wide array of computer science-related professions, anticipated growth in jobs and salaries suggests a burgeoning and lucrative field—not to mention a necessary one in a 21st century economy.

Unfortunately, a look at passage rates on the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam—one measure of student preparedness for these fields in high school—demonstrates that even the best states have only a tiny fraction of their students equipped for the rigors of the industry.

The highest-performing state, Maryland, saw just over 1% of the class of 2013 pass the AP Computer Science exam (defined as receiving a score of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale). North Carolina, which falls in the middle of the pack, saw fewer than 3 in 1,000 students pass. Louisiana, the lowest-performing state that still had a passing student, saw just 4 students in 10,000 pass the exam. Two states—Wyoming and Mississippi*—saw zero students pass. A look at the performance of traditionally underrepresented groups in computer science is even more sobering: as Education Week affirms, in some states, “no female, African-American, or Hispanic students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science.”5

Improving access to and success in AP Computer Science courses is critical to preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow. An online petition started by the nonprofit Code.org encouraged citizens to sign “if you think every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science.” As of early 2014, more than 1 million people had signed, while more than 20 million people worldwide completed the program’s Hour of Code. During Computer Science Education Week in December 2013, Code.org announced a partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to make computer science a core subject (as opposed to merely an elective) in CPS schools.6

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker signed a bill that would increase the number of credits in math and science a high school student needed to graduate, while permitting computer science classes to count for the math requirements.7 Alabama followed suit, meaning 16 states total allow computer science courses to satisfy high school math requirements.8 Such trends are encouraging developments and show the steps thoughtful state leaders can take. The business community would do well to use their voices to advocate for continuing this push.

State Percentage of Graduates Who Pass the AP Computer Science Exam
Alabama 0.19%
Alaska 0.22%
Arizona 0.12%
Arkansas 0.22%
California 0.66%
Colorado 0.36%
Connecticut 0.60%
Delaware 0.27%
District of Columbia 0.13%
Florida 0.29%
Georgia 0.50%
Hawaii 0.14%
Idaho 0.14%
Illinois 0.65%
Indiana 0.25%
Iowa 0.22%
Kansas 0.05%
Kentucky 0.34%
Louisiana 0.04%
Maine 0.56%
Maryland 1.40%
Massachusetts 0.72%
Michigan 0.33%
Minnesota 0.31%
Mississippi
Missouri 0.17%
Montana 0.09%
Nebraska 0.20%
Nevada 0.14%
New Hampshire 0.45%
New Jersey 0.86%
New Mexico 0.13%
New York 0.60%
North Carolina 0.26%
North Dakota 0.04%
Ohio 0.37%
Oklahoma 0.19%
Oregon 0.10%
Pennsylvania 0.40%
Rhode Island 0.17%
South Carolina 0.26%
South Dakota 0.13%
Tennessee 0.13%
Texas 0.70%
Utah 0.12%
Vermont 0.42%
Virginia 1.07%
Washington 0.57%
West Virginia 0.15%
Wisconsin 0.31%
Wyoming 0.00%