An Open Letter To The Computer Science Community


AP Computer Science Principles

Quick Read

Cover of America's Got Talent handout
But Not Enough
Is Going Into CS
A new high school Advanced Placement (AP) course in Computer Science is presently under development. The course, tentatively called Computer Science Principles, is a deep, content rich class covering the fundamentals of computing. If adopted, CS Principles will NOT replace the current CS A, Java Programming course, but rather will give access to all students to the "beauty and awe" of computing. In Spring 2011 the College Boards will be surveying US colleges and universities regarding this course. As explained below, the new Computer Science Principles course presents the Computing Community with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring substantive computer science to mainstream America. You and your department can help make it possible. Please read.


Executive Summary
Endorse CS Principles
The Process
Content: 7 Big Ideas
6  CT  Practices
2010/11 APCSP PIlots
Become A Pilot Site


Larry Snyder
  University Washignton
  (206) 543-9265
  snyder AT cs DOT  washington
    DOT edu

Owen Astrachan
  Duke University
  ola AT cs DOT  duke DOT  edu
Amy Briggs
  Middlebury College
  briggs AT middlebury DOT  edu

Jan Cuny
  Nat'l Science Foundation
  (703) 292-8489
  jcuny AT nsf DOT  gov

Direct Link To Endorsement Page

Executive Summary

Advanced Placement Tests in CS

AP CS A Java Programming Exam Continues
AP CS Principles A New Exam of CS concepts including Computational Thinking
 THE SITUATION   Several years ago under the auspices of National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, the College Board (CB) began revising its Advanced Placement courses for science topics. The Computer Science A Test of Java Programming was not included; it will continue as is. Rather, CB began developing a new broad-based course, tentatively called Computer Science: Principles, appropriate for all college-bound students. The effort was guided and funded by NSF's Broadening Participation in Computing program.

Drawing heavily on the advice of the CS community and using a process described below, a CB Commission co-chaired by Owen Astrachan and Amy Briggs is developing

  • the knowledge base
  • the high school course that will teach the material
  • the college version of the course that entering college students could "get credit for", and
  • the evidence base from which the test will be created
The exam will be deployed for the first time about 2015. The development is in progress; much remains to be done.

 THE IMPORTANCE   Because education in the US is completely decentralized, it is virtually impossible to make changes to pre-college curricula without working directly with the education officials in each state, and often, in individual school districts. Change comes slowly as a result. Advanced Placement courses are the exception: The curriculum is defined separately from the states by field experts, the materials are prepared based on the content, the course is standardized and so is replicable, and deployment is largely the option of each high school, which are incentivized to adopt it. However, broad changes to Advanced Placement are a once-in-a-generation event.

 THE BENEFITS   The anticipated benefits to the Computer Science field are potentially enormous.

  • All high school students can experience the "joy, beauty and awe" of computing, not just those who want to hack Java.
  • Students from groups traditionally under-represented in computing will be exposed to the deep and interesting content of the field.
  • Students, most of whom have no idea what computer science is, will find that it is not simply programming, and will be able to differentiate between using an application and creating one.
  • A general exam appropriate for all students can potentially remove the stereotype that "CS-types" are anti-social, maladjusted white males.
  • The creative potential of computing for socially beneficial purposes, scientific advancement and other "high impact" uses not directly related to advancing the technology can attract a much wider talent pool to computing.
  • Graph of career choices vs needs A recent study1 found a FACTOR of 5.5 difference between the percent of high school students expressing interest in a CS/IT career (2%) and projected US labor needs for CS/IT graduates in 2018 (11%); expanding the pool is essential.
  • Students who take an advanced placement test in a subject area are, according to the CB2, more likely to take a college course in that subject area; today, AP Java Programming accounts for only 0.7% of all AP tests taken.
  • CS can take its rightful peer position in high schools next to other intellectually deep subjects like math and physical sciences.
  • With a concepts-rich curriculum that emphasizes computational thinking and problem solving students taking the course will be better prepared for most careers, given the role that computing plays in most sectors of American life.
  • The population at large -- starting with present day high school students -- will become more knowledgeable and cognizant of computing and computational phenomena.
These are significant and worthwhile objectives that many groups within the field have sought to achieve in recent years. Further, they can be realized with minimal new effort by college faculty.

 NEXT STEPS   During the 2010/2011 academic year five schools are piloting college-level courses based on the content of the Big Ideas and Practices. These courses will become the basis for a high school level AP Computer Science Principles course that prepares for the AP CS Principles exam. Their syllabi are being published as they are completed, making the content of the course concrete.

CS departments at US colleges and universities will be asked for their input on the new AP CS Principles Course.

 YOUR DEPARTMENT CAN HELP:   The community will be queried on two aspects of the enterprise.

  •  Content Survey   In Winter 2011, CS Departments will be asked to offer their comments on the overall content of the AP CS Principles course. Specifically, the 'Learning Objectives and Evidence' -- the detailed specification of the material to be included in the course and exam -- is being circulated to faculty members to look over and provide feedback to the Commission and Advisory Committee.

  •  Endorsement Survey   In Spring 2011 CS Departments are asked to submit letters "endorsing" the effort. Department chairs should attest to their intent to give credit or placement to students taking the high school course and scoring a 3 or higher on the exam once it is available. The specifics of the process can be found here.
Notice that departments already giving high content courses (not literacy!) targeted at general audiences will likely find the proposed course a good match. Such courses might include Fluency with Information Technology courses, CS0 courses, "Great Ideas in Computing" courses, and others.

 YOU CAN HELP:   Individuals can help, both by "spreading the word" and by facilitating the process.

  • Acquaint yourself with the effort and spread the word to your colleagues, emphasizing the unique opportunity, and the careful, deliberative process for developing this content-rich course.
  • Alert your chair to the two items above, and consider how you might help in formulating your department's response.
  • Contact faculty in other departments, especially those that require their students to take CS courses, and explain how the CS Principles course can prepare students for a deeper, richer experience in the required courses.
  • Explain to your dean and other campus administrative personnel about the course, and explain its importance
  • Pilot CS Principles at your school, or collaborate with other faculty to customize the CS Principles curriculum for your school's needs.
  • Talk to high school teachers about CS Principles, help train teachers to teach CSP, mentor HS teachers who want to teach CSP, help to develop materials that convey the "joy, beauty and awe" of computing.

Introducing substantive computer science concepts to main stream America is not likely to happen by any other means; another opportunity of this form is not likely to arise again in your career.


Guide To Further Information

The APCS Principles Course project has been underway since 2008. Further information about the effort is available at these locations.

This Site

Direct Explanation of the Vision

Related Topics



  1. ACT Research, The Condition of Career and College Readiness: 2010
  2. Willingham, W.W. & Morris, M. Four years later: A longitudinal study of advanced placement students in college. Princeton, NJ: College Board, 1986

     Contact: snyder at cs dot washington dot edu