Last year, Falls Church students Bruno Del Moral and Marie Roche took Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture and got excellent scores on the grueling four-hour final exam. That’s not so unusual except that they were eighth-graders — the only middle school students in Virginia to take the college-level test written and graded by outside experts.
There are many more similar students in other states, something I did not know until I recently inspected a 2017 list of AP high schools in Florida. On the last two pages, I saw this: Ponce de Leon Middle School 21 AP tests, Herbert A. Ammons Middle School 22 AP tests, Okeeheelee Middle School 14 AP tests.
I double-checked the small print. There were nine such schools, mostly in Miami, where 14-year-olds were not just taking the tests but in almost every case passing them. The College Board says U.S. students not yet in ninth grade took 7,437 AP exams in Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Italian and Japanese in descending order of frequency. This year there will be more.
Acceleration is a loaded term in American education. Parents of gifted children love it, but some educators find it troublesome. They have difficulty arranging for children to jump so far ahead. They sometimes blame parents for pushing too hard.
The idea becomes even more controversial when nearly all middle schoolers taking AP Spanish (5,292 tests last year) in 16 states and the District grew up in that language. A Fox News story in 2009 quoted a teacher not in the program saying, “A kid who is fluent in Spanish taking an AP class: Really, it’s kind of redundant.”
Yet colleges love non-Hispanic applicants who have done well in AP Spanish, even though their skills are no better than those of Hispanic middle schoolers who critics say are wasting time and money on the course. It’s like saying that children of scientists should not take AP Physics because they get all that at home. Fluency in another language should be seen as a gift, not a disqualification.
The College Board will not let middle schools put the AP label on any college-level courses except those teaching foreign languages. “These courses focus on linguistic proficiency and cultural competency, so in rare situations these courses can be successfully offered earlier than ninth grade among students who can already speak, read and write the language with fluency,” a College Board guide said.
Tim and Lynn Roche work for the State Department and saw nothing wrong with their daughter Marie doing AP Spanish in eighth grade. She was born in Peru, learned to talk in Mexico and attended third through sixth grades in Cuba. She tested at fifth-year Spanish level when she arrived in Falls Church for seventh grade, but was told she was not ready for an AP course and “would run out of Spanish courses to take before finishing high school,” her father said.
The school compromised on third-year Spanish in seventh grade. The next year, AP Spanish teacher Kirsten Albert welcomed Marie and Bruno to her class of 10th-graders at the city’s George Mason High School. Albert has five middle-schoolers this year.
“They add humor, wit and lots of energy to our discussions and work,” she said.
Marie said AP Spanish was a “way to keep up my Spanish skills and improve them.” Her family agreed, although an uncle joked “it’s a great plan until some senior asks Marie to the prom.”
Bruno’s parents were born in Mexico, and his father is a Mexican diplomat. He said his friends admired him for taking what they considered a difficult course. In 11th grade, Bruno and Marie will switch to International Baccalaureate Spanish courses, with challenging differences from AP.
The College Board says the District led all but three states last year with 30 AP Spanish tests for middle schoolers, including some at the Columbia Heights Educational Center, a leading AP public school. Educators nationwide have confirmed the high quality of those courses and exams. Smart teachers will soon be showing how many more middle schoolers than expected are ready for them.