The College Board's Decision to Drop a Latin Exam

By Jane Miriam Epperson Brinley
Thursday, May 14, 2009

My students Matt, Andres, Jose and Denny spent the year reading Cicero and Catullus in my Advanced Placement Latin literature course at St. Anselm's Abbey School in Northeast. On Friday morning, they will be the last group to sit for the three-hour Latin literature AP exam, translating Cicero and writing essays about the poems of Catullus. They are the last because the College Board has decided that my school and I no longer need to teach Catullus, Cicero, Horace or Ovid.

Across the nation, Latin programs are changing because the College Board announced last spring that while it would continue the other Latin AP exam, which covers Virgil, May 2009 would be the last time it offered the Latin lit exam, which covers Cicero and four lyric poets. While specific figures are not yet available, it seems likely that this decision by the testing giant will lead to significant enrollment declines and reduced course offerings across the country. In effect, our entire discipline is reduced to the study of a single -- admittedly great -- author, Virgil. In the gap created by our national reluctance to centralize education policy, the College Board, an unelected body, has ended up as the de facto Education Ministry, and when it makes decisions we have no recourse.

With the termination of the AP Latin literature exam, high school programs nationwide will change. Because AP exams set the standard of academic quality for college-bound students, high school curricula are often reverse-engineered to prepare students for AP tests. So principals who have been willing to support small Latin programs because they added to the number of bodies in AP seats or AP scores about which they could boast are likely to decide that the Latin program's resources can be better spent elsewhere. Teachers who have nurtured multiyear programs that keep students engaged until they can tackle Catullus's hendecasyllabics will then throw in the towel. Parents who have encouraged their children to stick with Latin because they could add this AP Latin score to their transcript will decide that Junior should look for something more alluring to college admissions officers.

The College Board's curriculum-setting role goes beyond the AP course itself. Latin courses for elementary schools (a growth area), middle schools and high schools will now change, and textbooks will change along with them. Since teachers favor textbooks that lay the groundwork for the advanced study their programs anticipate, they have recently been selecting series that emphasize, for example, Catullus's vocabulary and themes -- love, manners and literary issues -- over those that emphasize, say, Caesar's (politics and war). But now textbook publishers are likely to revise their products, and teachers will gradually replace their books to reflect the single-author focus of the remaining Latin AP exam.

In the uproar within the classics community -- elementary through college -- that followed the College Board's surprise announcement last spring, it became clear that options for recourse were nearly nonexistent. College Board officials did reluctantly agree to consult a panel of college and university faculty about the future of the AP Latin program. They balked, however, at including anyone from secondary education who actually teaches the syllabus. After significant pressure, Lee Pearcy, an eminent secondary school teacher and vice president for education of the American Philological Association, and Sherwin Little, president of the American Classical League, were admitted as observers. But it has become clear that this ex post facto consultation will not change the board's decision.

Until recently, many believed that the College Board felt responsible to the public good, but its termination of the Latin literature test and a few others that served only a few thousand students nationwide suggests that this is really about money. The College Board said this decision was related to the number of minority students taking the exam. But when it ended its Italian exam, a decision announced at the same time with the same excuse, the College Board (with annual revenue of half a billion dollars) left that decision open to reversal if supporters of the Italian exam could raise $1.5 million. (They could not.) Meanwhile, Latin, revered by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders -- John Adams declaimed the speeches of Cicero, once even in a toga -- has been placed in the hands of a bunch of administrative functionaries.

This troubling turn of events should concern more than just Latin teachers. So long as AP exams continue to influence high school curricula and so long as financial, and not educational, imperatives seem to drive College Board decisions, we should be asking who we really want in charge of all our disciplines.

The writer teaches Latin at St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington.

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