College Credit for Homeschoolers with the AP Computer Science Exam

By Chris Yust

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Every spring, many public and private high schools offer “Advanced Placement” (or AP) exams to their students. Those who score well on a specific exam usually qualify for college credit in that subject area. This can be a great way to trim time and costs from a student’s college career.

These same schools typically offer dedicated AP courses to prepare their students for the individual AP exam subjects. However, these preparatory classes are not a requirement for taking the exam. Any student who believes that he or she has mastered the subject material may take an AP exam. This means that homeschool students have an equal opportunity to take advantage of the amazing benefits that AP exams provide!

In this article I’ll tell you how homeschoolers can prepare and register for the AP exams. We’ll begin with an overview relevant to all AP exams, and then focus on my special passion, which is Computer Science!

Planning Ahead
If your student is interested in earning college credits through the AP exams, you’ll want to start by becoming familiar with the College Board’s website (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/index.html). There, you can find a wealth of “what”, “when”, “why”, and “how” information about each AP exam. You can access details on registration (www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/reg.html), descriptions of individual courses, and exam calendar and fee information. All AP Exams are given in May, so your student has a full school year to study and practice the exam topics.

The College Board has a list of special instructions (http://professionals.collegeboard.com/testing/ap/scores/prepare/homeschool) for homeschool students. It’s important to clearly identify where your student will take the exam, preferably at the beginning of the school year! AP exams cannot be administered by parents. You must register with the AP coordinator at a local public or private school that can administer the exams to homeschool students. Don’t spend a full year preparing for an exam only to find at the last minute that the exam is not available at your local school!

So how do you find a school that will allow your student to take an exam? Your best bet is to contact the College Board (www.collegeboard.org/contact-us#app) to get a list of participating schools in your area. Make sure to let them know you need a school that will work with homeschoolers. Then, contact the AP Coordinator at that school and obtain information about exam fees and registration. The AP Coordinator will use a special state code for homeschool students to keep your scores separated from their school. The deadline to register with your AP Coordinator is March 1st, so circle that date on your calendar!
For specific test dates, you can find a full calendar (www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/cal.html) on the College Board’s AP website. The testing procedure for these exams is similar to taking the SATs or ACTs. Your student will arrive at the school on testing day and will complete the exam under supervision of a trained proctor. Once complete, the exams will be sent off to the College Board for scoring. Testing results are usually available to you by mid-July and optionally sent directly to the colleges (www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/exgrd_rep.html) you specify.

So once you have your student’s AP scores, how do you interpret them? Each student will receive a score from 1 through 5 on an exam, with 1 being the worst and 5 meaning “Extremely well qualified”. Depending on the college, a score of 3 or more is usually enough to get a student some credit. Scores of 4 or 5 often count towards additional credit. If your student successfully prepares for and takes enough AP exams, he or she can possibly enter college with enough credits to skip the freshman year and begin with sophomore courses! If you think about how much money you can save in tuition, boarding, and other expenses, AP exams suddenly become very attractive. Just remember that individual colleges make decisions about awarding credit based on AP scores; you should review the AP credit policies of the colleges your student may attend.

Studying for an AP Exam
Now that your students are enthused about taking one or more AP exams, how will they prepare for an exam? Public school students would typically enroll in an “AP” class that has undergone the College Board’s Course Audit (www.collegeboard.com/html/apcourseaudit/index.html) process. This means the class can be listed as “AP” on a high school transcript and may even be weighted differently for GPA calculations.

For homeschoolers and distance-learners, some AP-sanctioned classes are available online for individual AP subjects. Since you are usually paying for a live teacher and online infrastructure to enable the course, be prepared to pay anywhere from $500 to $1000 or more per class!

Will your student need to take an expensive course in order to sit for an AP exam? It’s important to understand the difference between taking an AP-sanctioned class and taking the AP exam. Just taking an AP class and getting an “A” will not qualify the student for any college credit. An AP course is simply part of the student’s transcript. The student must still take the AP exam and score well, in order for colleges to award college credit! However, if you do take an AP-sanctioned course, then you can list it on your transcript using the official “AP” course names (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/teachers_corner/index.html) enumerated by the College Board.

If you are looking for a more cost-effective option that will allow your student to take and pass an AP exam, there are some options. It is entirely possible to take or construct a course that is not AP-sanctioned, yet still allows your student to learn everything necessary to score well on the exam! Homeschoolers are often very good at piecing together materials needed for specific courses, and this is possible for AP studies as well. The College Board website contains very comprehensive information on the topics your student will need to know for each exam. You can even apply to have your own homeschool course (www.collegeboard.com/html/apcourseaudit/index.html) designated as “AP” and list it with the official AP course name on your student’s transcript. Keep in mind, however, that getting a course audited by the College Board is not required. Your main goal is for students to score well on the exam and win those precious college credits!

Once your student has completed the AP course or self-study work, it’s a good idea for him/her to practice before taking the exam! The College Board AP Central website (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/teachers_corner/index.html) has very detailed information that will help students practice for an AP exam. This information includes partial listings of past exam questions and information on the format and scoring system for all current exams. You can also consider purchasing study guides for your exam subject. Barron’s has a popular lineup of test-prep manuals that usually include multiple practice exams.

The “Computer Science A” Exam
My own special interest as a software engineer is the “Computer Science A” exam. According to the College Board’s statistics (http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/ap/data), only 31,117 students (http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/2013/Program-Summary-Report-2013.pdf) took the AP Computer Science A exam in 2013. By contrast, hundreds of thousands of students each took the AP United States History, English, and Calculus AB exams. In this digital age where our lives and careers are increasingly shaped by computers and programmers, I’d love to see students take a renewed interest in Computer Science!

How do you find out what is on the “Computer Science A” exam? You can review the “Computer Science A Course Description” (http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/ap/ap-computer-science-a-course-description-2014.pdf) for a list of specific topics. The Computer Science exam tests the student’s knowledge of both general computer programming theory and hands-on practical programming skills using the Java language. Specific lab requirements (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/teachers_corner/221994.html) for the exam have changed starting in Fall, 2014!

General programming subjects include: Object-oriented design techniques, understanding class definitions, class relationships, and class hierarchies. Students will have to write their own classes to meet problem requirements. Students will also be responsible for fundamental parts of the Java language, including variables, flow control, simple console output, arrays, and some parts of the Java Class Library such as “List” and “ArrayList” objects.

Troubleshooting, error identification, and error correction are all important parts of a software engineer’s life, and these topics are also covered. Students are expected to understand testing theory, use of debuggers, and the difference between compile-time errors, run-time errors, and exceptions.

Over time, many classic algorithms have been developed to perform specific tasks such as sorting or searching through a sorted list. Some of the more common searching and sorting algorithms are tested, as are recursive programming concepts. Students are also expected to be well-grounded in ethical computing, which means understanding social, legal, and privacy issues and responsibilities that come with being a software engineer.

Finally, the AP Computer Science exam will test a student’s ability to read, understand, and modify existing code. Three new labs have been defined starting in the Fall of 2014: Magpie, Picture Lab, and Elevens (http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/courses/teachers_corner/222163.html). While these specific labs will not be tested on the exam, they are representative of the kinds of skills students are expected to have in order to be successful.

On exam day, be prepared for a 3-hour test that includes both multiple-choice and free-response sections. There are 40 multiple choice questions over the first 75 minutes. Then students have 105 minutes to finish a free-response section containing four questions, where students will demonstrate ability to read extended problem descriptions, write code, and solve problems.

Early Career Guidance
Whether you sign up for an AP course or plan your own self-study with a quality textbook, participating in the AP process and scoring well on the exam can be a rewarding effort! Students will get early experience with college-level material that may help guide their career and college choices. Should your teen be interested in Computer Science as a career, rest assured that the United States and other countries are in need of qualified programmers to fill many job opportunities. Computer Scientists enjoy excellent job prospects in a growth industry (http://cs.calvin.edu/p/ComputingCa
reersMarket). Computers and software will continue to play a more influential role in all our lives, so why not help architect the digital revolution instead of merely hanging on for dear life?
* AP and the Advanced Placement Program are registered trademarks of the College Entrance Examination Board, which was not involved in the production of this article.

Author’s Biography
Chris Yust is a 17-year veteran of the software industry and a father of two homeschooled boys. Chris and his wife Andrea are co-authors of eight computer programming textbooks for kids and teens including “TeenCoder: Java Programming”. You can learn more about computer programming courses or contact Chris at www.homeschoolprogramming.com.

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