I have taught AP Spanish for five of the last six years. At my school, AP Spanish is a fourth-year course. I do not require applications for the class or otherwise “cull” potential students. Anyone who wants to take it may do so. Also, we require all students who take an AP course to take the AP exam in May. My first couple of years I floundered around, trying to figure out what the College Board was looking for. The last three years I grew to understand more of how to effectively prepare students for the exam (that last part leaves a bad taste in my mouth, to teach to prepare students for an exam). This is my students’ record over the last three years, with a total of 21 students:
Scored 1: five students
Scored 2: five students
Scored 3: five students
Scored 4: six students
Over the last several years, I have learned a few things about the AP. My first year was an experiment for everyone; it was the first ever AP Spanish class at my school. I had two students. One of the students was a combination of motivation and aptitude I never saw before or since and do not know if I will ever see again. The student completely skipped Spanish 3. His father was the head of a construction firm that employed many Spanish-speaking immigrants, so he had an opportunity to work with them frequently. He would hear them say something and ask them to explain why or how they said it. He would ask me in class about particular features. Then he would go out and for the next week he would deliberately practice it until he could do it without much thought. He was functionally proficient in Spanish after three years in class – really, after the time he spent in the community.
He scored a two.
Honestly, after only three years, and with me bumbling through my first year teaching AP, a two was pretty good. But the AP purports to measure how well a student will do in a first-year Spanish course in college. And this functionally proficient student would not receive any college credit from the AP for his proficiency. That was my first hint of what the AP actually measures.
This year, I had a student who lived in Spain until he was nine. He could accomplish anything he wanted to in a conversation with native speakers; I saw him do it. He has no reason to take any college Spanish class, ever. He also speaks French and Arabic because he lived in Morocco after Spain.
He scored a one. And that was my fifth year teaching AP. Try as I might, I could not prepare him to take the test. Why? Because he was not a good test-taker. He was terrible at multiple choice. I mean, he would second-guess himself until he’d score perhaps 15% on multiple choice practice sections. And my student who spoke Spanish fluently could not receive any credit from the College Board because of this problem.
From these five years of teaching AP Spanish, here is my take on what the AP world language exams actually measure:
- Students who are good at taking tests will have a better chance because, after all, it’s a standardized test, and it measures how well a student can guess the answer the test writer was looking for.
- Perhaps as an artifact of the format itself, the test does not measure negotiation of language, one of the most important tools a student has to improve interpersonal communication. Rather, it measures the ability to react quickly to artificial prompts and predict what comes next.
- The test does not measure ability to communicate things students at this level typically talk about, but rather measures how well students can analyze unannounced choice topics from a dizzying range of advanced global issues. Okay, so it’s important to teach students to think very critically (although this is not a typical requirement to do well in a first- or second-year college Spanish language class), but this is primarily a vocabulary issue. Really, I promise, look at the Curriculum and Framework put out by the College Board. You’d better have your students analyzing historical events, solving the world’s problems, and predicting the future or it’s completely the luck of the draw of topic on the free-response sections.
All this leads to great teachers offering the stupidest tips ever. You know an exam is a bad measurement when you get tips like:
“Pick an idiom, any idiom, and determine you’re going to use it and figure out how.”
“Choose the most positive answer if the question is about indigenous peoples.”
“Choose the ‘greenest’ answer if the question is about the environment.”
“Five paragraphs will get you a higher score.”
Alas, I feel I must continue the tips. Stay tuned for a post sharing tips a French teacher heard at a recent workshop, with my take on them, and asking for yours in return.