Snafus with AP Spanish test create a perfect storm

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Taking grueling Advanced Placement exams is never a walk in the park. But when a convergence of disasters hits, even the most well-prepared student can be reduced to tears. Proctors as well.

That is exactly what happened this year during the AP Spanish language exam held May 7 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

These AP tests in general – four hours of testing with a 10-minute break – are torturous enough. But the mastermind who developed the AP Spanish language exam in particular wins the prize for excessive cruelty.

According to Mike Grove, executive director of curriculum and assessment for the San Dieguito Union High School District, the Spanish test is unique “because of the way it’s structured.”

“Every single year we have issues with it. It is notoriously the most difficult test,” Grove said at a meeting at Canyon Crest Academy May 16. About 20 distraught students and parents and one teacher came to hear how the district would explain the mishaps that plunged many students into despair over their testing experience.

The complicating factor this year was the venue, he said, citing exterior intrusive noise from fairgrounds construction equipment and poor sound quality due to inadequate rented audio equipment and bad acoustics in the exhibit hall where the test was administered.

He apologized profusely, called the venue inappropriate, and said, “We take responsibility for that.”

Because districts are not allowed to open the actual audio test material, San Dieguito had to test the sound using other methods that proved insufficient. In addition, there were “technical glitches,” he said.

The timer broke, then the backup timer broke. Trains whistled by, the hall echoed, students’ recorders were faulty at times, students past the first few rows could not hear the audio, construction equipment beeped loudly at exactly the wrong moments, and other unforeseen disruptions created what Elloise Bennett called a perfect storm.

Bennett, the AP coordinator for SDUHSD, said the Spanish test is the most difficult of all the AP tests to administer, even in the best of times.

The test has several portions that depend on careful listening skills – multiple choice, essay, conversational dialogue and a presentation. All audio is in Spanish, as are the responses.

For the multiple choice section, students listen to a recording to answer one-quarter to one-third of the questions. And instead of reading a passage, they hear a passage.

The essay portion has students listening to the audio and then responding in writing.

For the conversational portion, students listen and then record their responses as dialogue goes back and forth.

The other listening piece provides some written instructions, pictures and audio, and then students are allowed five to six minutes to plan a presentation and organize a small speech that then gets recorded.

The description left me speechless. We do this kind of thing to 16- and 17-year-olds?

“It’s brutal,” Bennett agreed.

But it gets worse.

The functionality of the equipment becomes a critical factor. “We have to provide equipment that meets College Board standards,” she said.

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