U.S. computer science students are crushing it

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Undergraduate computer science programs at universities and colleges in the United States appear to produce more skilled students on average than equivalent programs in China, India, and Russia, according to new research.

Researchers found that undergraduate seniors studying computer science in the United States outperformed final-year students in China, India, and Russia on a standardized exam measuring their skills.

International comparison of universities usually falls in the domain of popular news rankings and general public perception, which rely on limited information and do not consider the skills students acquire, says Prashant Loyalka, a center research fellow at the Rural Education Action Program in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. That’s why he and his team wanted to collect and analyze data on what students learn in colleges and universities in different countries.

“There is this narrative that higher education in the United States is much stronger than in other countries, and we wanted to test whether that’s true,” says Loyalka.

“Our results suggest that the US is doing a great job at least in terms of computer science education compared to these three other major countries.”

International competition

As part of the study, the researchers selected nationally representative samples of seniors from undergraduate computer science programs in the US, China, India, and Russia. Students were given a two-hour standardized computer science test that the nonprofit testing and assessment organization Educational Testing Service developed.

In total, 678 students in China, 364 students in India, and 551 students in Russia took the test. In the United States, the researchers used assessment data on 6,847 seniors.

The average computer science student in the US ranked higher than about 80% of students tested in China, India, and Russia.

The test, which aligns with national and international guidelines on what students should learn, probed how well students understand different concepts and knowledge about programming, algorithms, software engineering, and other computer science principles.

Researchers found that the average computer science student in the US ranked higher than about 80 percent of students tested in China, India, and Russia, Loyalka says. In contrast, the difference in scores among students in China, India, and Russia was small and not statistically significant.

Researchers also compared a smaller pool of students from top-ranking institutions in each country. They found that the average student in a top computer science program in the US also ranked higher than about 80 percent of students from top programs in China, India, and Russia. But the top Chinese, Indian, and Russian students scored comparably with the US students from regular institutions, according to the research.

The researchers also found that the success of the American students wasn’t due to the sample having a large number of high-scoring international students. The researchers distinguished international students by their language skills. Of all sampled US students, 89.1 percent reported that their best language is only English, which the researchers considered to be domestic US 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 says. “Our data show that’s not the case. The results hold if we only consider domestic students in the US.”

The researchers also found that male students scored moderately higher than female students in each of the four countries.

“The difference between men and women is there in every country, but the gaps are modest compared to the gaps we see between countries and elite and non-elite institutions,” Loyalka says.

STEM skills

The new research is a part of a larger effort Loyalka led to examine the skills of students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields in different countries. In another forthcoming paper, he and his collaborators examine other skills among students in the same four countries. Further research will also look at the relationship between skills developed in college and labor market outcomes, he says.

Another major goal of the research team is to look more deeply at what might be driving the difference in the performance among countries.

“We’re looking at different aspects of the college experience including faculty behavior, instruction, and student interactions,” Loyalka says. “One of our major goals is to see what types of college experiences could contribute to better student performance.”

The research results appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Stanford University