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AP Computer Science

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AP Computer Science

This article is part of the
Advanced Placement series.
General exam structure    •    Awards
Current subjects:
In development:
Former subjects:

Advanced Placement Computer Science (also called AP Comp Sci, APCS, AP Java, or CSAP) is an Advanced Placement course and examination offered by the College Board to high school students as an opportunity to earn college credit for a college-level computer science course. AP Computer Science A[1] is meant to be the equivalent of a first-semester course in computer science. The AP exam currently tests students on their knowledge of Java. AP Computer Science AB, which was equivalent to a full year, was discontinued following the May 2009 exam administration.[2] The current Chief Reader for AP Computer Science is Liz Johnson,[3] associate professor of computer science at Xavier University.

AP Computer Science A

Advanced Placement Computer Science A emphasizes object-oriented programming methodology with an emphasis on problem solving and algorithm development. It also includes the study of data structures and abstraction, but these topics were not covered to the extent that they were covered in AP Computer Science AB.

AP Computer Science AB (discontinued)

Advanced Placement Computer Science AB included all the topics of AP Computer Science A, as well as a more formal and a more in-depth study of algorithms, data structures, and data abstraction. For example, binary trees were studied in AP Computer Science AB but not in AP Computer Science A. The use of recursive data structures and dynamically allocated structures were fundamental to AP Computer Science AB. Due to low numbers of students taking the AP Computer Science AB exam, it was discontinued after the 2008-2009 year.[4]

Topic outline

Topics covered by the course include:[5][6]

AP Computer Science exam

Since 2003, the AP Computer Science exam has tested students on their knowledge of computer science through Java. Before 1999, the AP exam tested students on their knowledge of Pascal. From 1999 to 2003, the exam tested students on their knowledge of C++ instead. The AP exam in Computer Science was first offered in 1984.

The exam is composed of two sections:

  • Section I: Multiple Choice [1 hour and 15 minutes for 40 multiple-choice questions]
  • Section II: Free-Response [1 hour and 45 minutes for 4 problems involving extended reasoning]

Case Studies

Historically, the AP exam has used several programs in its free-response section to test student's knowledge of object-oriented programs without requiring them to develop an entire environment. This practice has been discontinued as of the 2014-15 school year. The College Board has instead created three new labs which instructors are invited to use, but they are optional and are not tested on the exam.[7]

GridWorld Case Study

The GridWorld Case Study was used as a substitute for writing a single large program as a culminating project. Due to obvious time restraints during the exam, the GridWorld Case Study was provided by the College Board [1] to students prior to the exam. Students were expected to be familiar with the classes and interfaces (and how they interact) before taking the exam. The case study was divided into five sections, the last of which was only tested on the AB exam.

Roughly five multiple-choice questions in Section I were devoted to the GridWorld Case Study, and it was the topic of one free response question in Section II.

Marine Biology Case Study

The Marine Biology Simulation Case Study (MBCS) was a program written in C++ until 2003, then in Java, for use with the A and AB examinations. It served as an example of object-oriented programming (OOP) embedded in a more complicated design project than most students had worked with before. It replaced the Big Integer case study that was in use prior to 2000.

The case study was designed to allow the College Board to quickly test a student's knowledge of object oriented programming ideas such as inheritance and encapsulation while requiring students to understand how objects such as "the environment", "the fish", and the simulation's control module interact with each other without having to develop the entire environment independently, which would be quite time consuming. The case study also gives all students taking the AP Computer Science exams with a common experience from which to draw additional test questions.

On each of the exams, at least one free-response question was derived from the case study. There were also five multiple-choice questions that are derived from the case study.

This case study was discontinued from 2007, and was replaced by GridWorld.

Grade distributions for AP Computer Science A

In the 2012 administration, 26,103 students took the exam.[8] The mean score was a 3.06 with a standard deviation of 1.55. The grade distribution since 2003 was:

Score 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012[9] 2013 [10]
5 17.1% 18.6% 17.9% 21.9% 19.3% 21.7% 23.2% 26.3% 24.9% 23.6% 26.6%
4 24.5% 23.6% 23.2% 22.2% 22.8% 21.7% 25.7% 24.7% 24.8% 24.3% 26.6%
3 19.6% 15.3% 14.9% 14.4% 14.5% 13.9% 13.2% 13.9% 14.2% 15.6% 13.9%
2 9.2% 9.4% 9.9% 7.7% 9.5% 9.0% 8.2% 7.9% 7.9% 7.7% 7.0%
1 29.6% 33.1% 34.0% 33.7% 33.9% 33.7% 29.8% 27.1% 28.2% 28.7% 25.9%
Mean 2.90 2.85 2.81 2.91 2.84 2.89 3.04 3.15 3.10 3.06 3.21
Students 14,674 14,337 13,924 14,662 15,049 15,537 16,622 20,120 22,176 26,103 31,117

Grade distributions for AP Computer Science AB

AP Computer Science AB Examination has been discontinued as of May 2008.

In the 2008 administration, 4,995 students took the exam.[11] The mean score was a 3.52. The grade distribution for 2008 was:

Score Percent
5 38.9%
4 19.1%
3 15.1%
2 9.0%
1 18.0%

AP Computer Science: Principles

A new exam, titled Advanced Placement Computer Science: Principles is currently under development. It is designed not to be a replacement for AP Computer Science A, but rather as a parallel option that will focus on computational thinking and fluency. The project is being led by Prof. Owen Astrachan,[12][13] Professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Duke University. Pilot materials are currently being created, with pilot studies planned to run from the end of 2010 through 2016.[14][15][16]


  1. ^ AP Computer Science A Home Page, The College Board
  2. ^ AP Computer Science AB Home Page
  3. ^ Johnson, Dr. Liz [2]
  4. ^ Cech, Scott J., "College Board Intends to Drop AP Programs in Four Subjects", Education Week, 9 April 2008
  5. ^ "Computer Science A Course Description" (PDF). College Board. Fall 2010. pp. 8–10. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  6. ^ "Computer Science A Computer Science AB Course Description" (PDF). College Board. May 2009. pp. 10–13. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  7. ^ "New Computer Science A Lab Requirement". Retrieved 10 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "2011 Computer Science A Score Distribution". College Board. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  9. ^ "AP Computer Science A 2012 Score Distribution". College Board. Retrieved 12 January 2014. 
  10. ^ "AP Computer Science A 2013 Score Distribution". College Board. Retrieved 12 January 2014. 
  11. ^ "2008 Computer Science AB Grade Distribution". College Board. Archived from the original on 20 June 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  12. ^ Astrachan, Owen (29 October 2010). "Owen Astrachan Statement of Support". Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  13. ^ Home page for Owen Astrachan
  14. ^ "Proposed New Course and Exam—AP® Computer Science: Principles". College Board. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "CS Principles, A New First Course in Computing". College Board. Retrieved 5 March 2012. 

External links

  • College Board: AP Computer Science A
  • College Board: GridWorld Case Study
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