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Italian AP exam may go

Citing low participation, College Board wants to end the relatively new test. Groups say the program hasn't been given a fair chance.

September 15, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

The Italian American community in California and across the nation has a few words for the College Board: Salviamo il nostro esame!

The "save our exam" battle cry is at the core of a campaign to rescue the Advanced Placement test in Italian Language and Culture. The College Board launched the exam with fanfare just three years ago but now is threatening to kill it unless donations are found to support it and the number of test takers increases.

"It's a formidable task we are facing. We realize that. But we also feel there is nothing more important to the Italian American community than the preservation of Italian language education, and the AP is central to that," said Margaret Cuomo, daughter of the former New York governor and a leader in the national effort to save the test.

Advanced Placement exams test high school students' grasp of college-level material and also lend luster to subject areas and to students. The 37 AP exams, offered in such subjects as biology, music theory and world history, spur enrollment in related courses because many colleges grant academic credit to high schoolers who pass the challenging tests.

AP language courses also can create lifelong ties of tourism and, as Italians say, simpatia with the country and culture.

In this case, ethnic pride is involved because the Italian test is at risk while other AP language exams, including relatively new ones in Chinese and Japanese, are not. Protests led to a recent meeting between the Italian ambassador to the U.S. and the College Board president to discuss further aid from the Italian government, which gave $300,000 to help create the test. Italian Americans also donated $200,000 to the effort.

But the issue goes beyond those with Italian roots.

Nayelli Casarrubias, for instance, whose family is Mexican American, took four years of Italian at San Pedro High School, including the AP course leading to the test she passed in May. She wants to be trilingual, she says.

"It will be pretty dumb to end the test," said Casarrubias, who is starting at UC Davis this month as a neuroscience major with an Italian minor. The chance to earn college credit motivates high school students to take more than the two years of foreign language that UC requires for entrance, she said. "The test is what you are getting prepared for all those four years," she said.

The controversy over the Italian test began in April when the College Board, the nonprofit that also owns the SAT, announced that four AP exams would be given for the last time in May 2009. Higher-level AP tests in French literature, Latin literature and computer science also were targeted, although -- unlike Italian, which will lose its only exam -- tests will still be offered in French and Latin language and computer science.

After Spanish, French and German, Italian is the most commonly taught language in U.S. schools and was a logical choice for a new test, College Board officials say. They also say that strong lobbying and fundraising for it by Italian Americans led to its debut in 2006.

Surveys of Italian language teachers and community groups had predicted that about 10,000 high school students each year would take the three-hour test of reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. But only 1,597 students took the first Italian exam, growing to 1,930 this year, according to the College Board.

Not surprisingly, figures for the older AP language tests dwarf those for Italian: Spanish has about 100,000 test-takers each year, French has 19,000 and German 4,500. The 2-year-old Chinese exam has about 4,200 and the 1-year-old Japanese test 1,600, but those later exams were designed with an Internet scoring system that makes their costs lower, the College Board says.

The organization reports about $6 million in losses on the Italian exam so far, even after the original donations to support it and the $86 students pay for each AP test.

"That's a problem for a nonprofit association. We value the program but there comes a point in time when our trustees are saying that if this program is indeed important for American education, partners need to help mitigate the College Board's losses," said Trevor Packer, the organization's vice president for Advanced Placement exams.

Packer said the test could be kept alive another year if $1.5 million in donations are raised by next month, a goal he thinks can be met. "We have reason to be optimistic," he said. However, long-term renewal would require much larger sums and enrollments.

According to the College Board, 305 U.S. high schools offer the AP Italian class, with 23 in California, including San Pedro, Venice and Granada Hills Charter. (More than 6,400 schools, including 1,120 in California, offer AP Spanish.) Educators say budget problems have prevented more high schools from adding AP Italian, but questions remain about student interest.

Boosters of the Italian exam complain they were not given enough time to recruit high schools and students.

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