Computer science could soon be graduation credit in Kansas high schools

Kansas high school students could soon swap math and science classes for computer science classes should the Kansas State Board of Education adopt a set of proposed recommendations to its statewide graduation criteria.

The state education board on Tuesday morning heard from department officials and technology advocacy groups pushing for the board to adopt new standards for computer science classes that could sub in as one of four required core math classes or three required science classes.

Stephen King, computer science education consultant for the Kansas Department of Education, said the department was making the graduation requirement recommendation after years of discussion on the matter.

A recent survey of nearly 60 school districts saw relatively even split opinion on the issue, but King said much of the opposition against allowing computer sciences to count toward graduation came from misunderstandings of how such a change would occur.

King said the computer science classes wouldn’t necessarily be required of students but would simply be an option. Local boards of education would be allowed to substitute computer science courses for one unit of math or science, subject to the computer science courses following various provisions on rigor.

Additionally, a computer science course that could count toward graduation would have to be more in-depth than many existing courses that may only focus on specific programming languages. Especially in an ever-changing industry, King said schools would have to ensure their courses directly address computational thinking, a skill that would help students adapt to any kind of computer-related career.

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As it stands, 95 Kansas high schools in 55 school districts include computer science in their curricula, King said. Many of those courses are taught by business teachers as a related course to their specializations, King said, but he emphasized it will be critical for any high schools considering adding the course as a requirement to recruit teachers specifically trained to teach computer science.

Kansas used to include a path for teachers to receive a computer science endorsement on their teaching license, but since KSDE discontinued that endorsement in 2000, only 19 teachers remain with the endorsement. Director of teacher licensure and accreditation Mischel Miller said the department is working on reimplementing such an endorsement for teachers to either receive through a test alone or through a combination of training courses.

King said Kansas and Connecticut are the only two states that don’t yet include provisions on computer science to count as a specific course that can go toward graduation requirements, rather than simply being an elective.

Twenty-two states even require their high schools to teach a computer science class, King said. However, other states may define computer science differently, and some states count computer science as a foreign language requirement.

King noted that it would be up to each high school students, working in conjunction with their high school counselors in their individual plans of study, to consider if a computer science class would be worth their time in high school, especially if it could prevent them from taking another class.

Board chairman Jim Porter said the computer science discussion could be a great time for the board to revisit graduation requirements as a whole, especially since he viewed them as being relatively unchanged since his time in high school

“They’re not that different from when I graduated, and I graduated before most of you were born,” he said. “We are in a different world. Now my view is not practical, but we look at where we are and where we want to be, and my view is that we have (individual plans of study) — I want us to consider individual plans of graduation that meet the needs of each student.”

The board took no action on the discussion item Tuesday but plans to hold further discussion and vote on the issue at its June meeting. Porter asked state education commissioner Randy Watson to return to the board with a broader plan on addressing graduation requirements in whole at some later date.