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University of Sunderland

Computer Science Principles: Study, test prep and practice

Posted on: November 1, 2021
Young man at a desk coding on a laptop

In a world where apps, websites, software and other digital technologies are features of everyday life, educators readily understand the essential role of computing skills.

Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles – also known as AP Computer Science Principles or AP CSP – aims to create leaders in the varied fields of computer science. Designed for beginners – although prior knowledge of English, basic algebra, problem-solving and related skills is beneficial – AP Computer Science Principles is taken by students around the world.

Launched by the College Board in 2016, within its first three years, more than 100,000 teens and young adults sat the AP Computer Science Principles exam. In that same space of time, the number of female test-takers increased by 136%. While many high school students take the course in order to support college entry or prepare for college-level study, the programme also develops key skills and expertise with widespread application and appeal.

What is taught in AP Computer Science Principles?

According to AP College Board’s programme overview, students will explore the broad ideas and foundational concepts of computer science and how computing innovations impact other fields. With an ultimate focus of tackling real-world problems, the course content provides an understanding and appreciation of how computing transforms the world in which we live.

Over the course of an academic year, core material develops students’ abilities to design and evaluate solutions, apply computer science to solve problems, and use data to discover new knowledge.

Learning is centred around five ‘Big Ideas’:

  • Creative Development – including collaboration, design and development
  • Data – including binary numbers, data compression and extraction
  • Algorithms and Programming – including variables and assignments, data abstraction and iteration
  • Computer Systems and Networks – including the Internet, fault tolerance, and parallel and distributed computing
  • Impact of Computing – including crowdsourcing, legal and ethical concerns, addressing the digital divide, and bias

Within this framework, students will develop their knowledge of software engineering, data structures, web development, security, encapsulation, Boolean logic, and resource management, and will become familiar with a number of coding and programming languages. These could include C, PHP, JavaScript, SQL, CSS and HTML.

The programme provides opportunities for students to pursue their own interests and tailor their associated project work accordingly.

The AP Computer Science Principles exam

How hard is the AP CSP exam? How does the scoring system work? What will happen on exam day?

The AP Computer Science Principles exam consists of two sections:

  • Section 1 accounts for 70% of the overall score, and consists of 70 multiple-choice and single-select questions which must be completed within two hours. The test is taken online.
  • Section 2 accounts for 30% of the overall score, and consists of a student-created computing project called Create Performance Task. This project is completed separately to exam time. Students receive at least 12 hours of in-class contact time to develop their programmes and are also free to work on it outside of class. It relies on creativity and personal interests; students work collaboratively to develop programmes such as apps, games or websites which meet certain criteria and demonstrate their skills. Previous students have used their computer science skills to design a programme which addresses environmental or social issues in their local communities.

The exam is scored from 1 (lowest score) to 5 (highest score), and equates to:

  • 5 – Extremely qualified
  • 4 – Well qualified
  • 3 – Qualified
  • 2 – Possibly qualified
  • 1 – No recommendation

According to College Board’s 2019 test data, the average pass rate is 69-72%. Of all students who took the exam in 2019, 13.8% scored a 5. However, achieving an outcome of 3 or above is generally considered scoring well in the exam.

The best way to prepare for the AP Computer Science Principles exam

AP Computer Science Principles students are encouraged to complete multiple practice tests over the course of their studies. Practice exams are a reliable method to become more comfortable and confident with both the structure and content of the exam.

Various textbooks are available as companion guides for exam preparation. Created by AP experts, these resources offer exposure to the types of questions – and phraseology of questions – included in the exams. Barron’s Educational Series features well-known titles such as Barron’s AP Computer Science Principles and Barron’s AP Computer Science Principles Premium – both bestsellers by Seth Reichelson. These texts offer a course content review, together with strategies and techniques for exam success, and plenty of practice questions to measure progress. Alternatively, The Princeton Review AP Computer Science Principles Prep is also regarded as a thorough study guide.

There are lots of websites which specifically support AP CSP exam prep. For example, both the Albert and the College Board websites are valuable repositories for practice content, example answers, support for the Create Performance Task, FAQs and other related information.

Online tests and other practice materials provide opportunities to:

  • Become familiar with the format of the multiple-choice questions
  • Learn and revise the topics covered in the exam – e.g. the ‘Big Ideas’ categories – focusing on the aspects that are tested more frequently
  • Work on effective collaboration with peers to prepare for the Create Performance Task, and check that the programme code meets all of the requirements, e.g. instructions for input, collection of data in lists, a procedure, sequencing, selection and iteration, and instructions for output
  • Identify the video editing software needed to create a project summary, e.g. QuickTime Pro, Camtasia, iMovie
  • Review sample student portfolios and sample responses

Develop the skills to excel in a computer science career

Looking for a highly flexible, online computer science course? Want to accelerate career progression with the help of specialist computing skills?

Designed for those without a computing background, the University of Sunderland’s online MSc Computer Science programme is ideal if you want to change career path or incorporate more computer science in your current role. Supported by our experts, you’ll acquire the skills to specify, design, implement and support IT systems in the global business environment. As well as gaining practical knowledge of networking, databases, programming languages and web design, your studies will encompass areas such as cyber security, data science and machine learning.

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