The pipeline of students who will be tomorrow’s tech leaders is alarmingly vanilla.
According to a new analysis of test-takers, not a single girl, African-American or Hispanic student took the computer science Advanced Placement test in Mississippi or Montana last year. More than a third of the population in Mississippi is black.
In other words, a hugely disproportionate bunch of white guys took the test.
The lack of diversity is disconcerting because computer science is an industry hurting for qualified workers. That's not to say that a student must take AP computer science to pursue a computer science career, but it's an indicator of which young people have a degree of familiarity with the field. Tech companies have long lamented that they’ve had to look outside the domestic pool of students to find employees. Encouraging largely untapped demographics - girls, African-Americans and Hispanics - in high school to enter the field would only help.
But that’s not happening, at least successfully, right now.
There are 11 states where not a single African-American took the test and eight states where no Hispanics sat for the exam.
We’re not talking here about people who passed or didn’t pass, either. We’re talking about people who simply took the test, which means African-Americans, Hispanics and girls aren’t enrolling in AP computer science classes in the first place.
Of the approximately 30,000 students who took the exam in 2013, only around 20 percent were female, according to the analysis, and a tiny three percent were African-American. Just eight percent were Hispanic.
One reason there are so few students enrolling in the class and taking the test is that AP computer science courses are more common in suburban and private schools, Barbara Ericson, a senior research scientist with Georgia Tech who compiled the data, told the blog Education Week, and those schools tend to be less diverse than urban and public schools.
Another potential reason is that there are so few women, African-American and Hispanic instructors teaching computer science and so few working in the computer science field. Students are more likely to pursue a course of study if they have mentors with similar backgrounds to emulate.
College Board, which oversees the AP tests, has made diversity a priority in recent months, but clearly, there’s still a long way to go. And diversifying the pool of students taking the exam will require more than a push from College Board. Families, schools and community organizations will also play a crucial role in encouraging and guiding more girls and minority students toward computer science.