U.S. College Students Excel in Computer Science

A new study by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found America’s higher ed students outscore China, India and Russia when it comes to programming, algorithms and software engineering.

by Lisa M. Krieger The Mercury News / April 2, 2019

(TNS) — A major new study of computer science skills concludes that American college students are outperforming their counterparts in three major economic and political powers: China, India, and Russia.

“Our results suggest that the U.S. is doing a great job, at least in terms of computer science education, compared to these three other major countries,” concluded Prashant Loyalka of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, who led the international research project.

This first-ever comparison can inform employers seeking to hire qualified computing professionals in a globally competitive labor market, according to the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The average undergraduate senior studying computer science in America ranked higher than about 80 percent of final-year students tested in China, India and Russia, the team found. The difference in scores among students in those three countries was small and not statistically significant.

The trend also held for students from top-ranking institutions in each country, with students in the U.S. outperforming about 80 percent of elite students from the other three countries. The study identified elite schools in the U.S. as those with average ACT/SAT scores of 1,250 out of 1,600 or higher, which produce about 20 percent of computer science graduates.

The top Chinese, Indian and Russian students scored comparably with U.S. students from regular institutions, according to the research.

The test, which aligned with national and international guidelines on what should be taught, scored students on their understanding of programming, algorithms, software engineering and other computer science principles. It did not assume knowledge of any particular type of software or programming language but instead used a “pseudocode” meant to be universally understood.

With the global proliferation of information and communication technologies, there’s been a surge in demand for computing professionals — and a corresponding increase in undergraduate computer science programs.

Undergraduate computer science enrollments in research universities in the United States and Canada tripled between 2006 and 2016. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2024 almost three-quarters of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) job growth will be in computer-related occupations.

Until this research, there’s been little analysis of the competency of the world’s students. International comparison of universities has been based on popular news rankings and general public perception, which rely on limited information, according to Loyalka.

“Despite rapid increases in the quantity of CS graduates, little is known about their quality,” he said in a prepared statement.

That’s why he and his team wanted to collect and analyze data on what students learn in colleges and universities in different countries.

They selected nationally representative samples of seniors from undergraduate computer science programs in the four nations, giving them a two-hour standardized computer science test developed by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service. In total, 678 students in China, 364 students in India and 551 students in Russia were tested. In the United States, the researchers used assessment data on 6,847 seniors.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher proficiency in American institutions is not due to international student enrollment. Of all sampled U.S. test-takers, almost 90 percent reported that their best language is only English, a sign that they were domestic students.

“There is this sense in the public that the high quality of STEM programs in the United States is driven by its international students,” Loyalka said. “Our data show that’s not the case.”

In the future, the team seeks to study what might be driving the differences in student performance among countries. Is it faculty behavior? The type of instruction? Student interactions? That’s what they hope to learn.

“One of our major goals is to see what types of college experiences could contribute to better student performance,” said Loyalka.

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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