Reader complains about Hispanic students who take AP Spanish

By Jay Mathews
Monday, June 21, 2010

Early last Monday , while I was still in bed and wondering why the "Today" show had gotten so tabloidish, I was slammed on my blog by a reader who did not like my column about Doris Jackson, the principal at Wakefield High School in Arlington County.

It wasn't Jackson who bothered the commenter, but my praise of the school's strong performance on Advanced Placement tests. He had a complaint that has often puzzled me: Hispanic students who take AP Spanish, and the schools that let them, are getting away with something, he suggested.

"It is because of the Internet that we know that about half the students in Wakefield are Hispanic," he said. "We also know that the AP test that they are taking, which has falsely massaged these stats, is the Spanish Advanced Placement test. Take away that fabrication of academic performance, and the true percentage of AP tests passed plummets."

When I got to the office and saw his comment, I went to the Arlington schools Web site, a terrific source of data, to see whether he was right. My fact-checking didn't have much to do with the real problem -- dissing Spanish-speaking kids for studying Spanish -- but I will get there. Most of the time when I get into arguments with readers, they turn out to be right and me wrong. This time, I had a rare opportunity to wallow in rectitude on my blog:

"Counting all AP tests, including Spanish Language and Spanish Literature, 60.5 percent of tests [at Wakefield] were scored 3 and above (343 out of a total of 567 tests). When I subtracted the Spanish AP Language and Literature numbers (86 out of 109 tests graded 3 and above), I found the percentage of AP tests graded 3 and above for the school dropped to 56.1 percent (257 out of 458 tests).

"If you think a drop from 60.5 to 56.1 percent is a plummet, you are entitled to your opinion, but I don't think most readers would endorse your view. Wakefield is an unusual school for many reasons, one being the depth of the AP program in many subjects."

Readers gravitated to the bigger issue: Why was it wrong for Hispanic students to take a Spanish course? I have noticed a double standard. Two of my children, whose parents can't speak Spanish and didn't take it in school, worked hard to learn that language and now use it in their jobs. They are truly bilingual. This impresses people. So why are we not similarly gratified when Hispanic students with fewer advantages than my kids work just as hard to master the same two important languages?

We seem to be less interested in the results than how they are achieved. But when you think about it, everyone is taking the same approach. The two Spanish-speaking Mathewses struggled to get their grammar and vocabulary right in Spanish classes. Their friends from Hispanic families did the same in English classes. Each took classes in their native languages to polish their skills.

One commenter on my blog, who indicated that he was a non-Hispanic student in his fourth year of Spanish, said that "students whose first language is Spanish speak English much better than English speakers speak Spanish. However, Spanish speakers are forced to take standard English classes, but English speakers take much simpler Spanish classes. So how is that cheating?" He said Hispanic students have difficulty in his Spanish class "because they are used to using slang or different vocabulary than what we are assigned."

When my colleague Theresa Vargas, a Stanford University graduate who grew up in a Hispanic family in San Antonio, worked in the next cubicle, I envied her ability to strike up conversations with the building's maintenance staff. She was learning new things, as my kids are, while I remained stuck in my little English-speaking world. I don't think that is anything to feel superior about.

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