By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008
For those who teach Italian in U.S. schools, the advent of an Advanced Placement course in Italian language and culture three years ago was an epochal event, securing a future for the subject alongside Spanish and French and staving off competition from fast-growing programs in Japanese and Chinese.
The prospect that AP Italian might be eliminated has set off a reaction that might seem surprising, considering that 2,000 students took the Italian AP exam this year. Prominent Italian American groups and Matilda Cuomo, wife of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, have mobilized to save the course. Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta has also weighed in with the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program.
"We cannot have the Italian program eliminated. It is too important to us," said Maria Wilmeth, co-director of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington.
The episode illustrates the sway of the AP program, which measures high school students against the standards of college. The program has emerged alongside International Baccalaureate and Cambridge as the top tier for college-bound juniors and seniors. Good scores on end-of-course exams can yield credit and advanced standing in college.
Leaders of the College Board decided in late March to eliminate four of the program's 37 courses, including AP Italian, saying the four were under-enrolled and losing money. The last tests for French literature, Latin literature and computer science are scheduled for May. The AP Italian course might be saved if sufficient funds could be raised, said officials with the College Board, which is based in New York.
The announcement has reverberated beyond the 12,000 students involved in annual AP testing in the four courses, tiny numbers compared with the hundreds of thousands of students tested each year in English literature, calculus and U.S. history.
High school teachers, college professors and other proponents of the targeted courses fear nothing less than the extinction of their academic pursuits. Advanced Placement has become so entrenched in the nation's schools that the elimination of a test can imperil an entire field of study.
"I have kids that love Italian and would love to take it to that level, and it is an intellectual level of work that they deserve," said Paola Scazzoli, a teacher at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County who wrote parts of the AP Italian exam. "Look, if you take away the Italian AP now, you are breaking the program."
Advanced Placement courses are crucial to foreign-language departments, which compete for students with other subjects and with each other. For students, choosing a language often boils down to what is available and looks good on a transcript. Increasingly, many look for AP classes.
Latin teachers fear the loss of the Latin literature course will extinguish interest in the likes of Horace and Ovid, whose works are taught largely to prepare students for the test. Latin and French teachers fear losing competitive footing to Spanish, a discipline that boasts two popular AP courses.
The loudest protests have come from the Italian-language teachers, who stand to be cut from the AP program altogether. The other three courses -- French, Latin and computer science -- will remain in the AP program, but with one test instead of two. In each case, the course being eliminated is not as popular as the class that is to remain.
Italian has never commanded more than a fraction of the foreign-language market, though interest in the language is rising. Italian consistently ranks with French as a foreign tongue that appeals to many students. In U.S. schools, Italian is seen to lack the practicality of Spanish, the scholarly pedigree of Latin and the established tradition of French.
The Italian government and prominent Italian American groups lobbied to create the Italian AP exam and put up $500,000 to subsidize it. The governments of China and Japan, too, subsidized the recent creation of AP tests in those languages. Too few students take the $84 tests to yield a profit, but each of the new exams has raised the currency of the college preparatory organization while serving the interests of the foreign governments in promoting their language and culture.
"It is something that is prestigious for us, but also for them," said Marco Mancini, first counselor for consular, justice and home affairs at the Italian Embassy.
The first AP Italian tests were given in 2006. Participation topped 2,000 this year, but proponents have struggled to build a pipeline of students sufficiently prepared for the exam, which requires the equivalent of about five years' high school study.
As they announced cuts in April, College Board officials made clear their concern with the Italian course was purely financial. In May, Ambassador Castellaneta met with the College Board's president, Gaston Caperton. In June, the two parties announced that a task force had been formed to raise funds in hope to save the course.
Embassy officials say they have not yet been told how much money will be needed; they expect to find out later this month. The funds must be collected by October to save the test beyond 2009.
"They made very clear that they wished to sustain AP Italian," Mancini said. "But they made very clear that they would need money to do this."
Protest has risen in all four academic fields that stand to lose tests. Teachers say they were left out of the decision-making process. They say the exams are being eliminated too quickly for thousands of students across the country who had planned to take them in two to three years.
"There is more anger than you can possibly imagine among secondary teachers," said Ronnie Ancona, a professor of classics at Hunter College in New York, speaking for Latin teachers.
College Board officials said they hope to save the AP Italian test. The board plans to eliminate the other three but said it plans to refine and improve remaining tests in those subjects.
"Very few students were preparing to take the discontinued AP courses and exams, and in each case those students still have one capstone AP exam in that discipline available to them," Jen Topiel, College Board spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.
The retrenchment affects a small but significant number of students at some of the region's most prestigious high schools.
Montgomery County had 23 students engaged in AP study of Latin literature and Virgil in the last academic year at two schools, Walter Johnson in Bethesda and Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring. Forty-seven students at seven Montgomery schools took AP French literature.
At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, a selective Northern Virginia public school, 25 students took AP French literature in 2007-08, and as many as 75 students are expected to take AP Latin literature in fall.
No one in either school system took AP Italian this year, although embassy officials say a few dozen students took the exam privately. But teachers say that an increase in participation is just a matter of time.