College Board to discontinue the AP CS AB exam

Well the news hit like a thunderclap in the Advanced Placement Computer Science world today - the College Board has decided to discontinue the AP CS AB exam after next school year. That will leave one AP CS exam, the A exam, rather than the two course sequence that exists today. I'm still thinking about all the ramifications but (and regular readers of mine will not be surprised) I have some thoughts.

Is this a sudden change?

Yes it is. I heard no talk about it about a month ago at SIGCSE where I talked to a number of people from College Board and people on the test development committee. Everyone I have heard from was surprised.

Secondly this is about as fast as it can happen. Schools have the AB course in their course catalogues  and have signed up students for next year. Dropping the exam for next year would have been very disruptive and likely have been politically unacceptable. Some people are going to be unhappy as it is.

Why would they do this?

I think this is clearly a financial decision. The exams that are being cut (Italian, French and Latin exams are also being cut back) are among the exams with the lowest numbers of test takers. It is expensive to create, maintain and grade these exams.  The College Board says they want to provide more supporting materials for teachers and that suggests that non-money-making exams will have to be cut.

What does it mean for schools?

  • Schools that only offer the A course (roughly equivalent to CS1 in university) will be largely unaffected unless or until the A exam is changed (more on that below). These are the majority of schools.
  • Schools that only offer the AB course will probably offer the A course. However since many of them have a pre-requisite course that covers most of the A material this change may mean that they drop that course. They may start looking for an advanced course to follow up after the A course. Some schools will drop teachers though.
  • Schools that currently offer both the A and AB course will be very likely to look for or create an advanced course to follow the A course. They will be looking to keep students fully engaged and teachers fully employed. On the down side some schools will see this as an opportunity to cut back and save money. That will put additional stress on teachers and administrators.

What is the future for the AP CS A exam?

Only time will tell of course but there are some clues available already. A member of the AP Computer Science Course and Exam Review Commission sent out the following message today.

“Last week, the College Board’s Trustees made a decision that has direct relationship to the work we are asking you to help us do over the coming months. Given the steady decline of student and teacher participation in the Computer Science AB program, it will be discontinued following the May 2009 AP Exam administration. A much larger number of students and teachers participate in the AP Computer Science A program, which is designed to reflect one semester of college Computer Science, but we see a need to ensure that the AP Computer Science A course that is so much more popular is replaced, in time, with the best possible one-year college-level in Computer Science. After you have helped us to identify the ideal future state of one, single, full-year AP Computer Science course, we’ll then plan how to implement the professional development and the changes, incrementally if necessary, to expand the scope of the current Computer Science A courses to the ideal state.”

My take on that is that the A exam may be seriously changed over the next several years. The wording above suggests that the A exam will become more like the AB exam. I can see that getting some resistance.  I do not know if this will result in considering other (other than Java) programming languages but that is a possibility.  Personally I hope so but I never did like Java.

For the next several years I expect the A exam to remain mostly the same though because of the work involved in creating a new exam and retraining teachers. Well what are you hearing? Is this a good thing, a bad thing or just maybe an ugly thing?