Study: More than half of California high schools lack computer science courses

June 17, 2019

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California has the highest number of technology workers in the country. But many students in the state lack access to the computer science courses that may set them up for those career opportunities, a new study shows.

More than half (61 percent) of high schools in California do not offer computer science courses, according to a study released Monday by the Kapor Center, a nonprofit that focuses on equity and access in technology, and Computer Science for California (CSforCA), a campaign that promotes access to computer science education in California.

The high schools that do offer computer science courses are more likely to be in high-income or urban areas. Students of color and students in rural and low-income areas are least likely to have access to computer science courses, the study found.

Only 3 percent of California’s 1.9 million high school students were enrolled in a computer science course in the 2016-17 school year, according to the report. In 2018, only 1 percent took an Advanced Placement computer science course, which can offer students college credit.

“We have made progress in the state, but overall we have a lot of work to do to ensure that all kids in California have access to computer science,” said Allison Scott, a report author and chief research officer at the Kapor Center “It’s a critical moment.”

The report also highlights several promising trends, including the steady increase in the availability of computer science courses in California in recent years. Thirty-nine percent of California high schools now offer computer science courses, up since 2014, when about 24 percent of high schools offered them.

The increase reflects a statewide push to get computer science into more schools. In 2018, the State Board of Education passed California’s first-ever set of computer science standards. The standards are optional and offer schools guidance on how to bring computer science into the curriculum from kindergarten through high school.

In May, the State Board of Education also approved the California Computer Science Strategic Implementation Plan which includes strategies for schools and districts to offer computer science courses across kindergarten-12th grade and train educators on teaching the material. The plan also suggests that schools partner with community organizations to connect students with mentors and internship opportunities related to computer science.

Most recently, six California State University campuses were awarded a combined $7.5 million to create online STEM and computer science courses with a focus on reaching underrepresented students.

Authors of the report analyzed data on enrollment and courses offered by high schools from the California Department of Education and information on enrollment and scores in AP courses from the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the AP program.

The report details just how much work remains in expanding access to computer science courses.

Of high schools where most students are black, Latino and Native America, only 39 percent offer computer science courses, compared with 72 percent of schools where white or Asian students make up the majority.

Geographically, rural high schools in California are less likely (24 percent) to offer computer science courses than urban high schools (39 percent). Computer science courses are more often offered at high-income schools (55 percent) than at low-income schools (35 percent).

“There has been a lot of attention to computer science in some of the districts,” said Scott. “In San Francisco and Oakland, there has been a lot of resources from industry to really ramp up the course offerings. That has been a huge benefit to them, but not all schools have that connection to industry.”

Even when students do have access to computer science courses, large gaps remain. Black, Latino, Native American students make up 60 percent of California students, but they represent only 16 percent of AP Computer Science A test-takers, according to the report.

Black students in California made up only 1 percent of test-takers for AP Computer Science A, one of two computer science courses that the AP program offers. Fifteen percent of AP Computer Science A test-takers were Latino, white students made up 26 percent and Asian students were 49 percent. The numbers are staggering among girls of color in particular: Only 36 black girls and 453 Latina girls took AP Computer Science A course in 2018, the report shows. There were nearly 505,600 Latina and 55,200 black female high school students in California in 2018, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Disparities among students who take computer science courses in high school mirror gender and racial gaps in the technology industry at large. Only 5 percent of the tech workforce in Silicon Valley is Latino, while 39 percent of the state’s overall workforce is Latino, according to the report. At 70 percent, men make up a large majority of the workforce in Silicon Valley.

Authors of the study include eight policy recommendations to expand access to computer science courses especially in districts that primarily service low-income students and students of color. 

The release of the report coincides with Summer of CS, a week-long event this week led by the Sacramento County of Education and CSforCA. The event will bring together teachers, counselors and administrators for training in how to teach and communicate with students about opportunities in computer science.

“The more that technology becomes an integral part of the California economy, it requires an increased recognition of what it takes to build a diverse and skilled workforce of what’s needed to meet those needs,” Scott said. “Providing equitable opportunities to computer science courses in K-12 “is a really critical first step.”

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