Nov 22, 2010

'Molto Bene'—Italian Returns to the AP Lineup

Anyone who doubts for a moment that the College Board can be bought might take notice of the reinstatement of Italian to the lineup of courses and exams offered through the Advanced Placement program.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad decision. In fact, because well over 77,000 high school students take Italian each year, the reintroduction of Italian as an approved AP language is a good thing.

And, no doubt every American high school student should speak a second language. If Italian works because of your background or your interest in Italian food or culture, go with it. After all, there are approximately 60 million Italian language speakers in the world, and it happens to be number 15 on the list of the world’s top 20 spoken languages.

But what exactly does this mean for supporters of other less frequently taught and perhaps more immediately important languages or studies?

In short, if you’re able to attract a big-name lobbyist or some jaw-dropping funding, the College Board might sit down and talk.

It’s not really that frivolous an issue. Armenians or speakers of Portuguese may or may not have large enough lobbies to attract the attention of the folks in Princeton, New Jersey. But if the US government really wants to encourage more study of say, Arabic, it might consider doing what the Italians did—pay for it.

Last year, the College Board made a curious announcement about the future roster of courses offered under the AP program. Latin Literature, French Literature, and Computer Science AB would be ended due to lack of interest. Italian would meet a similar fate unless supporters could raise $1.5 million to keep it going.

With the door slightly open, the Italian community launched a campaign spearheaded by the New York based Cuomo family to keep the AP Italian exam on the College Board roster. An initial fundraising effort began but spluttered after the Italian government failed to come up with its contribution, and AP Italian soon joined the other three exams in the retired test category.

But the Italians were not to be deterred. With a great deal of persistence and star power, money flowed in from the Italian government, Italian-American groups, and the Italian Language Foundation. According to the New York Times, the Italian AP program now has financing “for the indefinite future.”

Local Italian language programs are few and far between. In northern Virginia, only Arlington’s Wakefield High School offers Italian, while 3 Montgomery County and 7 Prince George’s County public high schools have Italian language classes.

But it’s no secret that high achieving high school students go where the AP courses are. How else can they either prove academic proficiency or pass the nebulous “strength of curriculum” ideal promoted by many colleges? And then there’s the unquestionable advantage of being able to skip out on undergraduate course requirements with high enough scores on College Board achievement tests.

For the moment, the College Board offers French, German, Japanese, Latin (Vergil), Spanish, and Italian in the way of languages at the AP level. Subject Tests (the old SAT II’s) are also available in Modern Hebrew, Chinese, and Korean. Arabic, spoken by about 150 million people and the fastest growing language taught at US colleges and universities, is nowhere to be found on either list.

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