Only a small fraction of the state’s more than 250,000 high schoolers take computer science courses, and education officials hope a recent move will encourage more to enroll.
The Board of Higher Education on June 18 and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on June 26 adopted motions to include computer science in MassCore, the standard curriculum for high school students planning to attend college.
“In a state like ours, which is obviously so dependent on technology sectors generally and knowledge-based industries more broadly, having a knowledge of computer science is increasingly important, and kind of equally important is having the skill of computational thinking, increasingly one of those foundational academic skills that students need to have,” Education Secretary James Peyser told the News Service. “This is a first step, really, in trying to make it possible for computer science to really take off in high school, and I think in doing so really opening the door to much broader implementation of computer science education throughout the K-12 system.”
Beginning this fall, students will be able to take a computer science in place of one of the math or laboratory sciences courses required under MassCore.
Peyser said the state adopted new digital literacy and computer science standards about two years ago, and less than 2,500 students across the state are taking courses that adhere to those standards.
According to data presented at last week’s board meeting, 98 percent of suburban high schools, 90 percent of rural high schools and 77 percent of urban high schools offered computer science courses.
Higher proportions of white and Asian students took computer science than any other racial or ethnic group.
The board’s motions will not mandate that schools offer computer science, Peyser said, but will hopefully address a “pent-up demand” among students, parents and employers for computer education.
“Right now you can take computer science as an elective, there’s nothing to prevent it, but the reality is that because of the MassCore requirements, a student’s schedule is pretty full, so adding an additional requirement on top of those courses that are already required is a really heavy lift,” he said. “Certainly some students are up for it and want to do it and that’s fine, but for other students, they’re really faced with the choice of either taking a science course or additional math course instead of computer science, and today they don’t make that choice in favor of computer science because it doesn’t really count to their college admission or the MassCore high school requirement.”
“Timely, Relevant Skill”
Hannah Trimarchi, who graduated Marblehead High School last month and served as this year’s student member on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the News Service she had hoped to take a computer science class her senior year but ended up taking statistics instead to fulfill her math requirement.
Trimarchi said she has a couple of friends who were able to fit computer science courses into their schedule as sophomores, and the subject for them became “not only a good learning, educational tool, but they also find it a really great hobby.”
“I just think it’s a really timely, relevant skill, and I think it would just be almost like a credential that I could use going forward that would maybe allow me to springboard off of in case I wanted to pursue anything like that going forward,” said Trimarchi, who plans to study political science and public policy at George Washington University this fall.
In a June 26 statement to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said education officials must consider access and equity as they develop computer science plans, to ensure “every student has access to computer science coursework and acquires the digital skills they need in the workforce now and in the future.”
The alliance endorsed the idea of allowing students to substitute qualifying computer science courses for a math or lab science class.
“It will be critically important, however, to put safeguards in place that ensure these courses are of equal rigor across schools and districts,” the statement said. “The inconsistency between the number of students reported as having completed the MassCore course of study and those needing remedial or developmental courses in public higher education or the workforce is significant. This discrepancy indicates that MassCore is not the college and career ready measure it was intended to be and should be. Therefore, simply making computer science an option for MassCore will not guarantee the course is aligned with postsecondary education without further action.”
Peyser said the biggest challenge education officials face around computer science is not interest from students or availability of curriculum, but “more the availability of qualified teachers who can actually lead these courses.”
The state has established a new computer science licensure category for teachers in hopes of encouraging them to build skills in that area, he said.
“There’s no question there are a lot of teachers out there who have computer science skills but are not certified to teach a computer science course,” Peyser said. “A combination of deepening or strengthening their skills and then getting them certified, I think, will lead toward more supply to meet the growing demand.”