Should I enroll in AP Computer Science A or AP Computer Science Principles?

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The AP Computer Science Principles course was first offered by the College Board in 2016, and by 2019, over 100,000 teenagers had taken the exam. Female test-takers increased by 136 percent during that time period, demonstrating the course’s success. By 2020, 116,000 people will have taken the exam, up 21% from the previous year. Meanwhile, the old standard, Computer Science A, has been around since 1984 and is still very popular, with nearly 70,000 high school students taking it each year. With two Advanced Placement Computer Science courses available, students and parents are naturally curious: “Which course is right for me/my child?”

This blog will answer each of the following frequently-asked questions in the hopes of guiding you to a personalised response to your query.

  • What is covered in AP Computer Science Principles?
  • What is covered in AP Computer Science A?
  • What percentage of students pass the AP Computer Science Principles exam?
  • What are the results of the AP Computer Science A exam?
  • Who should take Computer Science Principles as an AP course?
  • What type of student should take Computer Science A?
  • Should I enroll in both classes?

We’ll start by looking over each course’s curricular offerings:

What is covered in AP Computer Science Principles?

Computer Science Principles is a “big picture” look at the field of computer science. Unlike with Comp Sci A, teachers have the freedom to choose the programming language they utilize. Finally, the examination covers the following topics:

10-13 percent for creative development (collaboration, design, and development).

Data (binary numbers, data compression/extraction) – 17-22%

30-35 percent Algorithms and Programming (variables and assignments, data abstraction, iteration, etc.)

11-15 percent – Computer Systems and Networks (internet, fault tolerance, parallel/distributed computing).

Computing has a 21-26 percent impact (crowdsourcing, legal/ethical concerns/bias).

Principles students must also submit digital artefacts and create a performance task that is graded by the teacher at the end of the course.


What is covered in AP Computer Science A?

The equivalent of a one-semester introductory college course is covered in AP Computer Science A. The emphasis is on computing skills related to Java programming. Finally, in the multiple-choice section, students are assessed on the following:

30-35 percent Program Design and Algorithm Development (determine code segments to produce a specific output)

Code Logic (based on initial values, determine the output/value/result of programme code) – Between 40 and 45 percent

Code testing (12-18 percent) (analyse the code for correctness, equivalence, and errors)

Documentation (describe the behaviour or conditions that resulted in a specific outcome) –12 to 18 percent

Four free-response questions are included in a separate essay section that cover the following five skill areas:


Create class objects and call methods using programme code.

Create a class and write programme code to define a new type.

Using expressions, conditional statements, and iterative statements, write programme code to satisfy method specifications.

Create, traverse, and manipulate elements in a 1D array or an ArrayList object using programme code.

Create, traverse, and manipulate elements in 2D array objects using programme code.


What percentage of students pass the AP Computer Science Principles exam?

Only 10.9 percent of test takers got a “5” on the AP Computer Science Principles exam in 2020; 23.6 percent got a “4”, 37.1 percent got a “3,” 19.8 percent got a “2,” and 8.6 percent got a “1.” Only 234 students worldwide answered all of the questions correctly the previous year. Students perform best on questions relating to “data & information,” “internet,” and “global impact,” on average. Students perform the worst on questions about programming.

What are the results of the AP Computer Science A exam?

Surprisingly, a higher percentage of students perform better on the Comp Sci A test, which is more difficult. 25.6 percent got a “5,” 21.7 percent got a “4”, 23.2 percent got a “3,” 12.8 percent got a “2,” and 16.8 percent got a “1.” While nearly one-fifth of students fail this difficult exam, nearly half of those who took it received a “4” or a “5”. This makes sense because this test attracts a more self-selecting group than the Principles test, with nearly every future MIT, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and other elite engineering/CS programme in the country taking it. On that note, 601 students aced all of the test questions in 2019.


Who should take Computer Science Principles as an AP course?

This course is suitable for those with little or no coding experience. Because the level of math required is only a foray into basic algebra, some students choose to take APCSP early in their high school careers. This is a course that every serious student should take, whether or not they plan to continue their studies in computer science after high school. In short, anyone with even a passing interest in computers should take this class.


What type of student should take Computer Science A?

Prior to enrolling in this class, students should have excelled in an Algebra II course and/or have coding experience. APCSA is a course that anyone interested in a career in engineering, design, or software development should take while still in high school. Colleges looking to enter a variety of tech-oriented fields of study will expect to see this on your transcript if it is offered by your high school.


Should I enroll in both classes?

These courses, according to the College Board, “can be taken in any order.” This is probably sound advice if you have a lot of coding experience. If not, we recommend starting with APCSP and then moving on to APSCA later in the semester/year if you enjoy the overview. Some advanced students will tell you that Principles is not worth your time, while others will advise you to take both to show your dedication to CS to competitive universities. Finally, if you are a top-tier CS prospect, we believe that taking APSCP can be beneficial if you have space in your already jam-packed AP schedule. However, if your day is already packed with important and highly relevant classes like AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Biology, there is no need to force this course.