AP Computer Science Takes Root in Rural Schools with Triple-Digit Growth in Three Years

In 2019, the number of rural students who took an AP® Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) exam grew by 117% since the course launched in the 2016-2017 school year.

Surge in Female Students Contributes to Gains in Rural Participation & Performance

Computer Science Education Week – In 2019, the number of rural students who took an AP® Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) exam grew by 117% since the course launched in the 2016-2017 school year. The number of young women in rural communities participating in AP CSP far outstripped overall growth with an increase of 141%. At the same time, the number of rural students earning a 3 or higher on the AP CSP exam is also up triple digits, rising 109% over the past three years.

Game Changer

In rural, southeast Kentucky, just one mile from the West Virginia border, Belfry High School math teacher Stephanie Younger remembers when, “only 20 students within 19 school districts were exposed to computer science.” That was 2015. Less than a year later, Younger estimates 500 students had taken a computer science class in the eastern region of Kentucky that fall.

“It grew from there. It just exploded. Our program doubled in size for AP CS Principles.” In fact, Belfry High School has more than doubled participation, with 127% growth since launching AP CSP in the 2016-2017 school year.

At the same time, the percentage of young women participating in the course has steadily climbed from 18% in 2017 to 43% in 2019. “The curriculum makes it fun for them. The girls are hungry for what’s next, always ready to take it to the next level,” says Becky Mullins, who teaches business, intro to programming and a second section of AP CSP at BHS.

When it comes to recruiting, Younger says, “You have to build those relationships. My girls keep coming back year after year,” Younger says of her former AP CSP students. “One of them is a sophomore studying computer science at the university, and she says to me, ‘We really need you to get girls in here!’”

Jobs are scarce in this coal-scarred region, but the community and its family connections are strong. That’s why Younger says it’s important for students to know computer science is a vehicle, but it doesn’t have to take them far from home.

“The reality is only about 50% of our students go on to a post-secondary or a trade school. However, by allowing them to choose AP CSP as a math elective, we are sending a new generation of young adults into the world with knowledge of how the internet works, how data is secured and transmitted, the importance of data privacy, and a basic understanding of programming. These are valuable skills for anyone, regardless of the path they choose once they graduate.”

Roughly one third of U.S. students attend schools in small towns or rural areas. Thanks to a College Board partnership with AdvanceKentucky and Code.org, significantly more rural students in that state now have access to AP Computer Science.

“CS is Fun”

At Glasgow High School in south-central Kentucky, AP Computer Science Principles has been offered for two years, and the growth has been impressive. In just one year, the percentage of young women taking an AP CSP exam has jumped from 18% to 53% in 2019.

Growth in class size and female participation is due in large part to the students themselves. “Word of mouth has worked best for me,” says Larry Correll, a math and algebra teacher, and the first in his school to teach AP CSP. “They get to see how much fun it is. Computer science is fun.”

Sharing photos from class on social media is another tool Mr. Correll uses to capture the attention of students and parents. He says once they experience the hands-on nature of the course, young women in particular, “see how creative they can be, and it makes them want to do more.”

“I want to see it as a mandatory course. Most people know we need computer skills, but they don’t realize how badly we need it. The impact that AP CSP has had on our students and the culture within our building is unmeasurable.

The College Board is expanding its commitment to better clear a path for rural and small-town students with three new partnerships to further engage rural policymakers, stakeholders and school leaders.

“Computer science is fast emerging as a core skill for today’s students. The enthusiastic response of educators in small towns and rural communities to recruit and shepherd participation in computer science coursework is a significant reason we are seeing triple-digit growth in the adoption of this important coursework. We are thrilled to see more students from these communities gain access to and participate in evidence-based computer science courses. We know there is more work to do and are working with rural educators to continue closing gaps between rural students and their urban and suburban peers. All students, no matter where they live, deserve access to computer science and the workforce opportunities it affords,” says Stefanie Sanford, Chief of Global Policy at the College Board.

The College Board has also teamed up with CSforALL on JROTC-CS, an innovative initiative designed to bring AP CSP to more than 500,000 Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) cadets. Currently, only 32% of these students have access to AP CSP in their school — more than half are minority students and 40% are female.

Earlier this year, the College Board announced overall participation in AP CSP more than doubled since its launch in 2016.