Computer Science Tests are Like It’s 1984

I recently completed the second level of Computer Science courses (CSE 143) at the University of Washington. If you know me and talk to me in person, you probably know that I am not majoring in Computer Science, and would go so far to say I actually dislike the major. While this is a topic for another day, CSE tests have always bugged me.

The basic level Computer Science tests are outdated, and in my opinion, not necessarily indicative of a student’s true programming skill.

I’ve had a lot of experience in programming, despite never having formal CSE training (prior to this quarter, though I wouldn’t exactly say I learned a lot in CSE 143). While I took the AP Computer Science test, I never took a programming course in high school. In fact, we weren’t even offered any good courses. The two that were offered, game design and web design, were titled incorrectly. They should have been called “Reserved Warcraft 3 Time” and “Halo 101,” respectively.

So, I wasn’t exactly missing anything by avoiding those courses. I instead fulfilled my occupational education requirement in CAD Lab (which, to a lesser extent, was filled with Halo matches against fellow students).

But because I knew how to program, I decided to take the AP Computer Science A test. I would have taken AB, but it’s no longer being offered. I certainly was prepared for the code concepts and problems, but I wasn’t quite as prepared for the fact that it was a written test. Other than in CSE 143 at UW and the AP Computer Science class, I don’t think I have ever written down a curly brace or square bracket in my life. The only other subject I might use square brackets in, math, I choose to solely use rounded parenthesis instead (of course, this is because I am a programmer and accustomed to square brackets indicating an array element).

On one of the problems, we are required to loop through an array of objects. Simple.

for(int i = 0; i < …

Wait, in Java, is it .length, .length(), or .size() for an array? In Javascript, it’s .length and PHP uses count($array)… I never use Java in practice, because I personally don’t like the non-native feel of Java apps, so I didn’t quite recall. Ultimately, because this was an array and not an ArrayList or some other object, I chose .length, and was right.

In practice, a programmer does not need to know every nuance of a language and know the syntax of every function because an IDE or good documentation prevents us from having to store all of these extraneous facts. I, for one, certainly don’t want to remember if PHP’s various functions take parameters in the “haystack”, “needle” format or “needle”, “haystack”.

So, why not provide a locked down computer with a basic text editor that has syntax highlighting and minimal code completion (with the standard stuff you get on a cheat-sheet anyways)?

At least, on the AP test, I get it– the testing locations are distributed nation wide with variable numbers of test takers (it was literally me, another guy, and two proctors during the AP Computer Science test), and it would be much more difficult to grade the AP Computer Science test differently than the AP Calculus test, which should be done with pencil and paper.

But three days ago in CSE 143, I sat in a room with 300 other people paying up to tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, and wrote a recursive function onto a thick pad of paper labeled “final exam” like it was 1984 and I was a part of the first group of students to take the AP Computer Science test.

Why should we be tested on something that we will never do in practice? Code is meant to be typed into a blinking box as much as math is meant to be written down. Sure, you can do it the other way, but why?

As a bonus, if the tests were electronic, you could even run all of the solutions through a test suite automatically and have the exam graded instantaneously. We’re not judged on style on the exams anyways, plus there is no way I am commenting my code when I’m writing it out in the hour you’ve given me to do the exam.

For a class so obsessed with commenting and coding “the right way” (read: the professor’s preference), why do we unnaturally code by pen?

Ultimately, I’m not looking for an excuse becayse I fail the exams. In fact, I got a 5 on the AP test–which would not have been affected by mistaking .length for .length()–and do very well on the written exams in the college course. I just think Computer Science, a field that is supposed to be cutting edge, needs to be taught like it’s 2012.

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