A Homer High School sophomore didn’t just earn a top score of 5 on the Advanced Placement Computer Science test. That feat alone put Spencer Kuan Co, 15, in the top ranks of a few hundred worldwide — but Co did even better.
He got every question right. That puts Co in the elite category of just .29% of all test takers.
The son of Kammi Matson and Kevin Co, Spencer said that when his family heard about the results, “We celebrated for a little bit, for sure. They were really happy.”
At Homer High, Spencer took the AP Computer Science course taught by Jan Spurkland.
“It’s really neat,” Spurkland said of Spencer’s perfect score. “And then on top of that, it’s really neat to see our community celebrating academic achievements. It’s nice to see the spotlight on Spencer here.”
Acknowledging the time pressure of a standardized test, Spencer spoke like a true scientist about how he got all the answers right — and could have gotten some wrong. Many of the questions were multiple choice, but some showed lines of computer code where test takers had to analyze the program and say what the output would be.
“There’s so much margin for error,” he said. “I mean, it could have been, with anyone taking the test, they could have known all the topics and general things. … There’s a lot of pressure in the moment of the test. You could make a mistake and get a question wrong.”
A second part of the test required test takers to write a computer program. Spencer wrote a drawing application where someone could make a drawing and then add layers. He wrote that program in class without any assistance.
“All the ideas are pretty simple, but there are little things like … you click something and it fills all the pixels the same color around that,” he said.
Spencer attended Fireweed Academy and Homer Middle School before Homer High. He said he’s shown an interest in engineering and science for quite a long time. He started learning on little kits his parents gave him. About age 10, he began taking courses with Khan Academy, a worldwide online and free educational platform that includes courses on computer programming. Spencer said he ended up taking all the courses available.
“I continued programming on there because it provides a platform where people can share the things they’ve created with other people and collaborate,” he said.
Spencer continued learning computer programming with Spurkland. Although the logic and elegance of programming applies to all computer languages, Spencer has learned Java.
“It’s a web based programming language,” Spencer said. “… Specifically, I use it to make games. I make a lot of interactive visual simulations.”
AP classes are considered college-level courses, Spurkland said, and students can get college credit by passing the class and then the test. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District offers computer application courses like Photoshop, but Homer High is one of the few schools to offer computer programming. This is the third year Homer High has offered computer science.
“There’s a push nationwide to introduce our students in K through 12 to computer science, and specifically computer programming, to try to give them the skills, the direction society seems to be heading,” Spurkland said.
Homer High got a grant from the Safeway Education Program to get Raspberry Pi computers. Raspberry Pi is a foundation to put affordable, simple computers in the hands of as many students as possible. Raspberry Pi runs the Linux operating system.
“It’s free and easy and there’s not any concern of crashing the system,” Spurkland said.
In college, Spurkland learned the C++ programming language, so to teach in Java, the teacher had to become a student, too. He got training through the district and Code.org, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools.
“It’s been a really enjoyable exploration along with the students,” Spurkland said. “… It’s a journey we’re taking together. Students say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, either.’”
Spurkland said he’s finding that could be the best way to learn.
“Maybe the most awesome way of teaching and learning is getting those questions together and modeling, ‘I don’t know that the answer is. Here’s a path was can take and try to find it,’” he said.
Spencer took AP Computer Science last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were shut down and students had to learn online or remotely.
“I found I had a lot more time to myself, and invested myself in computer programming,” he said. “I’ve had a lot more free time, to say the least.”
He has been continuing his education also through the Google Code program, where he can join clubs and explore aspects of programming like web design and coding. Spencer said he plans to go to college.
“I guess my dream school would be MIT (the Masschusetts Institute of Technology), but we’ll see how that goes,” he said.
Spurkland said students like Spencer give him hope for the future.
“Spencer is kind of an embodiment of what we like to celebrate at Homer High School,” he said. “He’s considerate. He’s compassionate. These interactions we have at school convince me the world is going to be OK.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.