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November 30, 2005

Audits of AP CS Courses

At a recent meeting of teachers and administrators from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), I happened to overhear expressions of concern about the College Board's plans to conduct audits of AP Computer Science courses and the teachers who teach them. Basically the teachers were concerned that audits of teacher credentials would seriously diminish the district's ability to find enough teachers for courses that are already challenging to staff.

Following up on this line of questioning, I contacted Gail Chapman, who is the Director for K-12 Consultant Training and Support at the College Board and my best professional source on all things AP Computer Science. Gail confirmed that while the exact details are still under discussion at the College Board, it is their intention to conduct course audits.

As noted on the AP Central website, the College Board sees the audit process as a central strategy for maintaining course quality and integrity:

"The goal of the AP Course Audit is to ensure that the newest generations of AP students are assured of the same level of consistent quality in their AP courses that continues to be manifest in the development and scoring of the AP Exams."

It is important, Gail says, to understand that this issue is not just a computer science issue. Rather, the Universities have raised on-going concerns with the entire spectrum of AP courses because they feel that schools often provide AP credit for courses that are not AP in content. As a result, students are simply not sufficiently prepared for the rigor of a university-level course. If the College Board is to maintain its credibility with the post-secondary institutions, it must ensure that courses labeled AP provide instruction and content that reflects the AP Course Descriptions.

Gail also believes that ensuring that AP courses contain AP content and are taught by teachers who are adequately prepared to teach this content protects teachers as well. Too often, she notes, teachers are required to teach courses that are not within their discipline and this puts an incredible strain on them.

This does not mean, however, that the LAUSD folks do not have some grounds to worry. As we have seen with the requirements for "highly qualified" teachers under the NCLB legislation, sometimes the additional qualifications bureaucracy really does disenfranchise people who have the knowledge credentials but not necessarily the paper credentials. Appropriate wording to the course audit documents that will allow for the latter, but encourage the former is one of the things still in discussion.

Gail encourages teachers to provide feedback regarding the course audit that can assist in further defining the audit details.

For more information about the AP course audits, visit


And as always, let us know what you think!


Posted by cstephenson at 06:53 PM | Comments (5)

November 18, 2005

Correctness and Finishedness

As a certified soft touch, I'm constantly running into the problem of students asking for extensions on their work. It is hard to deny a motivated student additional time to keep working on a problem rather than admitting to failure.

I think this may be more of a problem in CS than in other classes. In most classes, it is fairly straightforward to tell when a problem is finished and fairly difficult to know if it is correct without the answer key. In math, if I have an answer to the equation, I'm done, whether or not the answer is accurate. In humanities, I know if the paper has said what I have to say and whether I hit the page count, whether or not I was blowing hot air or completely wrong about the causes of WWII.

In CS, students have the golden test - does the program run? Until it will compile without errors and fulfill some approximation of the requirements, it is clearly not done. For a dedicated student who is used to working until the work is complete, it can be difficult to learn when to walk away, especially when the grade depends on the assignment. The difference between an overlooked missing semicolon and a significant logic error can be indistinguishable to a novice.

How can we better support our students in learning when to give up, when to persevere, and how much time to allot for assignments?

Michelle Friend Hutton
Equity Chair

Posted by cstephenson at 10:15 AM | Comments (1)

November 08, 2005

Sudoku Puzzles and Computer Science

I have to admit that I'm a bit of a Sudoku addict. Rarely has a morning gone by that I don't play one or two of the many on-line versions of Sudoku that are available across the internet.

If you've somehow missed the Sudoku craze, it is a very simple number puzzle. You are given a 9x9 grid with some of the squares filled in with numbers between 1 and 9. Your job is to complete the grid so that each number from 1 to 9 appears once in every row, once in every column, and once in each of nine 3x3 subgrids.


For example, in the above grid, you can confidently put a 5 in the shaded box. Here's why. You need a 5 somewhere in the second column. Because there's already a 5 in the top-left and bottom-left 3x3 subgrids, the 5 must go in the middle-left subgrid. And in the middle-left subgrid, the 5 has to appear in the fourth row. (As a good teacher, I'll leave it to you as an exercise to figure out why!)

To solve a puzzle, you fill in all of the empty squares by process of elimination. Depending on how many squares have already been filled in for you, this can be very easy or very hard.

So what does this have to do with computer science?

The other day I was talking with some fellow Sudoku fanatics when one of them mentioned that her daughter was particularly good at solving these puzzles. She said, "My daughter has this innate ability to recognize the patterns that occur."

And then in her next breath, she said, "I wonder what sorts of careers would use that talent."

Bingo. (The exclamation, not the career.)

"Has she considered computer science?", I asked.

"Computer science? Gosh no. The last thing my daughter wants to do is to sit in front of a computer screen all day."

Naturally, this was my opportunity to tell her about what computer science really is. It's not just programming (though a typical computer scientist does some of that as well). Rather, it's about problem-solving and algorithmic thinking. The pattern recognition skills her daughter has in Sudoku will serve her well as a computer scientist.

Finally, the thrill we Sudoku-lovers get when we finish a challenging puzzle is the same excitement I get when I solve an algorithms problem that has been particularly vexing. That satisfaction is what makes computer science so enjoyable.

While I'm not sure that my friend's daughter is going to rush out and sign up for a computer science course, I feel fairly confident that she'll at least consider the possibility the next time she has to sign up for classes. It's conversations like this one that will help people to understand what computer science is and help to strengthen the role of computer science in K-12 education.

Robb Cutler
President, CSTA

Posted by cstephenson at 05:57 PM | Comments (11)