For research reasons, in the last few days, I’ve been looking at several statistics on computer science programs in Portugal (but also in Europe and the US).

One of the most interesting findings is that approx. 20% of the students will drop the program at the end of the first year. But the most problematic finding is that after four years, only approx 22%-32% of the students were able to graduate in a 3-year program.

It is important to stress that in Portugal the admission to higher education is determined only by the grades that the students obtained in High School (50%) and the results of the exams in some particular subjects (Math and Physics) for CS programs, for instance (50%). In the end, only the n students with higher scores will be admitted.

Given the demand for IT personnel and the high unemployment rates of several other areas, several students will end up attempting CS.

I am aware, that some companies rely on the Berger Aptitude for Programming Test to select their candidates. From what I understood, this test is used mostly to evaluate the candidate’s ability to program and could not be used to select candidates for the CS programs.

Given this context, shouldn’t the students be performing some aptitude test before enrolling in these programs? Is anyone aware of the usage of such tests?

Obviously, I understand that one shouldn’t simply say to someone: “Hey choose something else!”. However, we are talking about several hundreds of students that are basically losing one or more years of their lives. Although this happens in Portugal, I guess the same thing occurs in other countries. Shouldn’t we be doing something about it?

I am aware of some other questions concerning programming aptitude. However, I think mine is different.

  • $\begingroup$ Is this something that the other CS faculty at your university are also concerned about, or is this question purely abstract? Which is to say, is this about what you should do, or about what your department should do? $\endgroup$ – Ben I. May 10 '18 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ This is a nationwide problem. Its mainly something that is "bugging me". I have no responsibility regarding this issue. Although I didn't wrote that in the question, I was not suggesting the use of a test to eliminate the candidates (i read a lot about the “geek gene”). I see it as a formative thing like: "Hum, I guess you are not 100% fitted for this but do as you wish!". When I posted the question, I was already expecting the "politically correct" answers. The problem is real (at least here) and no one seems to care. $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca May 10 '18 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ Is there no other aspect to the selection process? In the UK the candidate normally submits a written statement about themselves (and why they are applying) as well as an interview. $\endgroup$ – JeffUK May 11 '18 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @JeffUK Unfortunately, no! The only aspect that counts is the student's grades... Here, the student selects the University (and the program) when s/he applies, and not the opposite. Actually, on a given day in September, all the Universities are informed about the list of students that will enroll in their programs by a National Agency. The Universities have ZERO control. $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca May 11 '18 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @NunoGilFonseca then I guess your only option is to dissuade them from applying. See "Is CS a good choice for me" here ualr.edu/computerscience/prospective-students/… I've seen others being more blunt about "Just because you like playing computer games, doesn't mean this is the right course for you" $\endgroup$ – JeffUK May 16 '18 at 12:25

This is a great idea. We should definitely help people determine in advance what fields they are likely to succeed in. It would be far better for them, the economy and the employers to admit only people who are likely to be good candidates for schooling and employment.

The work training program that I have been employed to teach -- training adults with physical disabilities for entry-level programming jobs -- has just be discontinued partly due to the recent US Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requirement that job training programs result in a recognized industry credential leading to employment or advancement in a job. (We could not find a credential that was reachable with around a year of training.) As far as I know, this job training program was unique in the US, and it used to be quite successful, when it was possible to get a programming job with a few months experience in COBOL. This is no longer true, and we were short on incoming candidates and not having much luck placing them either.

We have now decided to offer training leading to the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification instead, which is faster and much more likely to get people in to jobs, and we can serve far more people a year that way.

I am just a little curious though, as to why someone didn't see this coming long ago -- the calls for prequalification for education and for screening of employment candidates -- back when the US Supreme Court passed that decision in 19711, making it illegal for employers to use screening tests that "could be biased"? (The decision that led to employers simply requiring a college degree instead, which has been implicated as a cause of the mushrooming demand for and cost of college and university education.)

Many experts in the field of computing are calling for Apprenticeship programs. Any takers? We could again try using the method humanity has relied on for thousands of years to produce experts, masters and professionals.

1: http://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/griggs-v-duke-power/

  • $\begingroup$ I sure understand that it's not up to some agency to decide what the students should learn, but we are talking about approx. 2500 students per year... Don't you think that something should be done... Well, in the end, they may use this experience to realize that CS is not for them and move forward, but again approx 25% wrong choices? Maybe we should blame marketing and the TV shows for providing a wrong idea about CS... $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca May 10 '18 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'd love to hear more about that US Supreme Court Case from 1971, any references? $\endgroup$ – Kelly S. French May 10 '18 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @KellyS.French Reference added to answer. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver May 11 '18 at 17:20

I'm going to present an orthogonal answer here so that you have some perspective. I don't know what the current demand for CS employees is in Portugal right now, but assuming it is high and has been for a while the following effect starts to occur and lasts for a while.

When a field is HOT, students with no strong preferences or goals will tend, more than normally, to try to get into that field, thinking that their future is assured. It doesn't matter if they have aptitude or skills. They just want to go there. In fact, those students might be very able in general but their interest isn't really in that field, other than what it might provide them as a livelihood. These students might actually test well on any aptitude test, but later drop out as they learn, too late, that they don't actually like what they need to do.

It may not even be that they find it too hard. It just isn't fun. So more than aptitude is needed and more that strong prior academics is needed. This is desire. You have to actually like the tasks that a field requires to want to stay in it, as not all the tasks are inherently fun.

This is just a warning that an aptitude test may not help you as much as you think it should. If you are overwhelmed with applicants then trying to find out why the students want to study this field can be a better predictor of completion than intelligence or aptitude.

Why do people go in to Medicine. Some are driven to help people or solve some interesting medical conundrum. But some are just driven by money (or the expectation of money). Who do you want to spend your time and effort educating. Find people with desire. That can overcome a lot of other things - even natural ability.

We sometimes think that star athletes do what they do easily and without effort. Nothing is farther from the truth. To excel they need to practice constantly. Their natural ability may give them a start, but they will fail without the desire that carries them over the hard parts and keeps them going. The same is true in academics.

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    $\begingroup$ I sure agree with what you said! And yes, the demand is also high here. The thing is: in Portugal; you select who will be admitted in a program having into account their high school grades. You can never ask them why do they want to do it. But, hey, I'm fine, I choose CS, because I like, and am very happy with my choice, the thing is that every year approx. 2500 students make a bad choice! $\endgroup$ – Nuno Gil Fonseca May 10 '18 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ I've had a student struggling in my Linux Admin I class (so about halfway through a 2 year degree OR at the end of a 1 year certificate) who couldn't follow a simple list of directions (1 - download ISO image at ... 2 - Burn ISO image using GUI utilities, etc). Asked him why he was having problems, he had some literacy issues. I asked him why he got into the IT field, he said "because my high school guidance counselor told me it would be working inside instead of roofing like my dad". $\endgroup$ – ivanivan May 14 '18 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe he will find enlightenment somehow. All who struggle are not lost. Some have a longer and harder path than others. As teachers we do what we can, but success doesn't lie behind every bush. $\endgroup$ – Buffy May 14 '18 at 18:33

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