This year’s 2020 State of Computer Science Education: Illuminating Disparities shows that although we’ve made progress toward our shared goal of providing access to high-quality computer science education for every student, we still have a lot more work to do.
Policy makers have championed numerous computer science efforts across all 50 states, and computer science is helping drive COVID-related research, remote learning, and economic opportunities despite the recent downturn. Yet the report found that less than half of all high schools in the U.S. teach computer science. And access to computer science is lowest for students from rural areas, economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and marginalized racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in computer science. What’s more, even when access is comparable, participation from students in these groups varies.
To address these findings:
- States should develop policies and plans focused on getting computer science into new schools so that every student can have access to high-quality computer science education.
- Within schools that offer CS, administrators, teachers, and counselors need to make a concerted effort to reach students from underrepresented groups and states need to develop more robust data systems so we can evaluate this progress.
Co-authored by Code.org, the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and the Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP) Alliance, this is the most comprehensive report of progress in K-12 computer science education across the U.S. It combines state-level policy with course access and participation data in a unique way to assess the progress of the computer science community through a lens of equity and diversity.
“Within ECEP, we’ve seen that in order to maintain a focus on equity, state-wide advocacy and policy strategies must be informed by data. Data shows us who is missing in CS pathways and can highlight early and systemic indicators of inequity,” said Carol Fletcher, Principal investigator of the ECEP Alliance. “We are working with states to identify indicators of broadening participation and encourage more states to build the disaggregated data infrastructures necessary to measure and track their broadening participation in computing efforts.”
Access and participation in foundational CS courses
For the first time ever, the State of Computer Science Education report is able to report on which high schools teach foundational computer science and which do not.
Across the country, 47% of all high schools teach at least one CS course, meaning that students attending more than half of schools do not have access to a single course. Further, access is not equal for students from all demographics.
Most notably, Native American or Alaskan students, Black or African American students, and Hispanic, Latino, or Latina students are the least likely to attend schools that teach computer science, as are students from rural areas and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
“We’re incredibly proud of the teachers across the country stepping up to ensure more students learn computer science,” said Jake Baskin, Executive Director of the CSTA. “But the unfortunate truth is that most schools still do not offer computer science, and the vast majority of students do not take a single CS course. Moreover, this year’s report makes it clear that deep inequities still exist in the field, and we call on policymakers and instructional leaders to support their teachers in eliminating these inequities; a key approach is funding professional development focused on equity and inclusion in the CS classroom.”
Even when schools offer computer science, the demographics of students taking the courses do not match the student population. Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in computer science (including Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students), English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals are less likely to take computer science courses even when they are offered at their school.
Similarly, while the number of students taking AP computer science exams (both AP CS A and AP CS Principles)* continues to grow rapidly, students from underrepresented groups are both less likely to attend a school that teaches an AP CS course, and are less likely to take an AP CS exam when compared to their white and Asian peers.
Clearly there is a huge opportunity to recruit students from diverse backgrounds to study the subject.
There’s still much work to be done, but this year’s report reveals bright spots, particularly in terms of statewide adoption of policies that support computer science education.
In the last 12 months, 28 states have collectively passed 42 policies to support computer science education. The Code.org Advocacy Coalition has a set of nine policies that help build and sustain a comprehensive policy framework that broadens the teaching and learning of computer science.
At the time of writing, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, and Nevada have adopted all nine policies recommended by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition. Two of these states — Arkansas and Maryland — had some of the highest percentages of high schools teaching CS at 89% and 83%, respectively.
This momentum reveals something we learned last year: Policy adoption relates to more opportunity! States that adopt more of the policies promoted by the Code.org Advocacy Coalition have higher rates of teaching computer science, which is why policy adoption should remain a priority for state leaders.
A more inclusive approach to CS
But even with these gains, it is not enough to declare victory when students from underrepresented groups still do not have equal access to computer science.
Gaps in both gender and race are narrowing, but still the majority of U.S. schools don’t teach a single foundational course in computer science. Beyond expanding access, we as a community should also prioritize creating opportunities for diverse participation and inclusive experiences. We can also better represent the experience of students from underrepresented groups by changing the way we collect and report data.
Together, Code.org, CSTA, and ECEP are committing to disaggregating student data by race and ethnicity and discontinuing the use of terms such as “underrepresented minorities (URM), and we’re also working to include broader data on student participation, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged students.
These changes will better allow us and our partners to explore the intersection of various student identities and characteristics, such as gender and race/ethnicity or disability status and race/ethnicity.
We’re in this together
We urge administrators, teachers, and counselors in schools that offer computer science to make a concerted effort to reach out to students from underrepresented groups, and we call on states to develop more robust data systems so we can evaluate this progress. We’re also asking state policymakers to develop policies and concrete plans focused on getting CS into new schools, so that every student can have access to high-quality computer science.
We also want to give special thanks to Microsoft, ExcelinEd, Amazon, Google, College Board, and the many other organizations in the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, as well as the computer science community broadly.
It will take the continued hard work and dedication from our entire community to ensure that every student, in every school, has access to computer science. We want to thank each and every teacher, district administrator, policymaker, parent and student for being our champions in this movement, and we look forward to continuing this crucial work. If this year has shown us anything, it’s that we can achieve what matters most when we come together.
-Cameron Wilson, Code.org Advocacy Coalition President and COO
*Although AP-level computer science data provides an incomplete picture of computer science participation and performance, it is the most widely used measure available and allows for comparison across states.