Italian AP exam may go

Times Staff Writer

The Italian American community in California and across the nation has a few words for the College Board: Salviamo il nostro esame!

The "save our exam" battle cry is at the core of a campaign to rescue the Advanced Placement test in Italian Language and Culture. The College Board launched the exam with fanfare just three years ago but now is threatening to kill it unless donations are found to support it and the number of test takers increases.

"It's a formidable task we are facing. We realize that. But we also feel there is nothing more important to the Italian American community than the preservation of Italian language education, and the AP is central to that," said Margaret Cuomo, daughter of the former New York governor and a leader in the national effort to save the test.

Advanced Placement exams test high school students' grasp of college-level material and also lend luster to subject areas and to students. The 37 AP exams, offered in such subjects as biology, music theory and world history, spur enrollment in related courses because many colleges grant academic credit to high schoolers who pass the challenging tests.

AP language courses also can create lifelong ties of tourism and, as Italians say, simpatia with the country and culture.

In this case, ethnic pride is involved because the Italian test is at risk while other AP language exams, including relatively new ones in Chinese and Japanese, are not. Protests led to a recent meeting between the Italian ambassador to the U.S. and the College Board president to discuss further aid from the Italian government, which gave $300,000 to help create the test. Italian Americans also donated $200,000 to the effort.

But the issue goes beyond those with Italian roots.

Nayelli Casarrubias, for instance, whose family is Mexican American, took four years of Italian at San Pedro High School, including the AP course leading to the test she passed in May. She wants to be trilingual, she says.

"It will be pretty dumb to end the test," said Casarrubias, who is starting at UC Davis this month as a neuroscience major with an Italian minor. The chance to earn college credit motivates high school students to take more than the two years of foreign language that UC requires for entrance, she said. "The test is what you are getting prepared for all those four years," she said.

The controversy over the Italian test began in April when the College Board, the nonprofit that also owns the SAT, announced that four AP exams would be given for the last time in May 2009. Higher-level AP tests in French literature, Latin literature and computer science also were targeted, although -- unlike Italian, which will lose its only exam -- tests will still be offered in French and Latin language and computer science.

After Spanish, French and German, Italian is the most commonly taught language in U.S. schools and was a logical choice for a new test, College Board officials say. They also say that strong lobbying and fundraising for it by Italian Americans led to its debut in 2006.

Surveys of Italian language teachers and community groups had predicted that about 10,000 high school students each year would take the three-hour test of reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. But only 1,597 students took the first Italian exam, growing to 1,930 this year, according to the College Board.

Not surprisingly, figures for the older AP language tests dwarf those for Italian: Spanish has about 100,000 test-takers each year, French has 19,000 and German 4,500. The 2-year-old Chinese exam has about 4,200 and the 1-year-old Japanese test 1,600, but those later exams were designed with an Internet scoring system that makes their costs lower, the College Board says.

The organization reports about $6 million in losses on the Italian exam so far, even after the original donations to support it and the $86 students pay for each AP test.

"That's a problem for a nonprofit association. We value the program but there comes a point in time when our trustees are saying that if this program is indeed important for American education, partners need to help mitigate the College Board's losses," said Trevor Packer, the organization's vice president for Advanced Placement exams.

Packer said the test could be kept alive another year if $1.5 million in donations are raised by next month, a goal he thinks can be met. "We have reason to be optimistic," he said. However, long-term renewal would require much larger sums and enrollments.

According to the College Board, 305 U.S. high schools offer the AP Italian class, with 23 in California, including San Pedro, Venice and Granada Hills Charter. (More than 6,400 schools, including 1,120 in California, offer AP Spanish.) Educators say budget problems have prevented more high schools from adding AP Italian, but questions remain about student interest.

Boosters of the Italian exam complain they were not given enough time to recruit high schools and students.

"Give us a chance," said Ida Lanza, who teaches Italian at San Pedro High. "We just got started. Give us at least six years to see if we can get more students in here and more students taking the test."

The large Italian American community in San Pedro's port neighborhoods, boosted by students of other ethnic backgrounds, especially Latino, helps to fill Italian classes at that public high school. Even there, however, not enough students take fourth-year AP Italian to meet the minimum for a separate class.

So, in a classroom bungalow decorated with maps of Italy and posters of Puccini operas, Lanza enthusiastically leads a combined course of 21 students in third-year Italian and 11 in AP Italian. It takes juggling to keep both groups on track across the central aisle that separates them, but she makes it work.

The AP students often have different and more difficult assignments. Sometimes both groups tackle similar material, as they did the other day on the "passato remoto" past tense of verbs used in the song "Alla fiera dell'est" (At the fair of the east). "Bravi," Lanza congratulated students who correctly conjugated verbs (Io mangiai, tu mangiasti, lui mangio', noi mangiammo: I ate, you ate, he ate, we ate) and identified vocabulary words.

Many students are aware that they may be the last to take the AP Italian test.

Matteo Amalfitano, a San Pedro junior, said he knew some phrases of Italian from his immigrant father and grandparents before he started studying Italian as a freshman. Matteo, who was wearing a T-shirt one recent day that proclaimed him "F.B.I. Full Blooded Italian," said he wants to be fluent as a point of cultural pride.

But he was so concerned that the Italian exam might die before he could take it that he won Lanza's approval to skip Italian 3 and join the AP section. "I would be mad if I couldn't take the AP test," he said.

Italian American civic organizations and prominent figures including the Cuomo family have joined the cause. A new group, the Italian Language Foundation, is seeking to raise money and awareness. Margaret Cuomo, a New York radiologist who is the foundation president, declined to say how much has been contributed but said the organization hopes it will succeed and is working closely with the College Board.

"We've moved beyond the aggravation and confusion to a point of collaboration," she said.

At the Italian Consulate in Los Angeles, education director Anna Chiaratti said her government will donate more money.

"We don't know the exact amount, but we are sure we are going to get some," she said.

Although such states as New York and New Jersey have larger Italian American communities, Chiaratti emphasized that interest also is strong in California.

"I think Italian culture is appreciated in this part of the country," she said.


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