Snafus with AP Spanish test create a perfect storm


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.

Students are provided by the district with individual recording devices and speak into a microphone when told. They may have only a minute to speak. At various times, they are instructed to press buttons – play, record, pause, stop.

Often they don’t know if they’ve recorded or not, Bennett said, until the end when they do a check.

“Often kids press the wrong button or their recording doesn’t record, so they have to re-record before they can be released,” Bennett said. A 30-minute time can easily extend to one hour for re-recording.

That’s exactly what happened on testing day because kids pressed the wrong buttons, the instructions didn’t match the equipment, or the recorders inexplicably failed. And there were those who couldn’t hear due to outside noise, inside echoes, the faulty sound system, or all the other Murphy’s Law disasters that befell the Bing Crosby Hall that day.

Students can re-test

After learning of the mess, Bennett contacted College Board that day and according to Grove submitted her report “in incredible detail.”

The purpose, he said, was to ask College Board to allow students to re-test. “We want to allow you the opportunity to do that test again,” he said to students.

Bennett said the good news is that College Board has authorized re-testing, and soon. That’s also the bad news for students who studied and prepared for this perverse test for months – actually years, considering that it’s foreign language. Now it’s not over and the stress level gets extended.

The new test has been scheduled for either May 29 or 30 (students will be notified which date), and there are no make-up exams.

Students can choose whether to re-test, but only one exam will be scored. If students choose not re-test and submit their May 7 exam, Bennett said it will be scored with an incident report attached. The grader would then have a record of what happened that day to understand the context and take that into consideration.

That means the grader has flexibility and won’t score the tests on a national curve, “but will individualize the test,” Bennett said.

This will be a different test but not a harder one, Grove said, because College Board has multiple versions of the test. “The benefit is you now know how it goes,” he said to the CCA students.

“Students did not have the opportunity to showcase what they know,” Bennett said, calling the re-test a “great opportunity for students.”

She said she was on the phone immediately with College Board to explain the extenuating circumstances and argue her case. What helped tremendously, she said, were all the “heartfelt” emails from students filled with tears and frustration that she shared with College Board.

That, plus the large number of San Dieguito students who sat for the test – 238, triple what most districts have. That got their attention, she said.

Torrey Pines issues

Of the 238 San Dieguito students who sat for the AP Spanish test May 7, about half were from the northern portion of the district and half from the south. In the north, the students from La Costa Canyon High School and San Dieguito Academy tested at La Costa Canyon where there was classroom space.

The students from the south, at Torrey Pines High School and CCA, were tested at the Fairgrounds. About 80 students from TPHS and 40 from CCA gathered together in Bing Crosby Hall, for the first time.

In previous years, TPHS students tested on campus in their high quality language lab.

“It’s like what you get at a college campus and is a completely different environment [than the Fairgrounds],” Bennett said. She said it is “lovingly cared for” and would run about $45,000 to install at another school.

The night before the CCA meeting, Bennett and Grove met with AP Spanish language students, parents and teachers from Torrey Pines to cover the same issues. But because of the school’s stellar language lab, the TPHS students were reportedly more forceful in expressing their dismay.

“You test best in the environment that you learned in,” Bennett said, sympathizing with the TP students and saying the school’s lab is where they have practiced and are comfortable.

In contrast, Canyon Crest has no computer lab for foreign language and doesn’t have space that is free from outside noise disruptions, she said. So CCA kids have tested for AP Spanish language at other locations including the Fairgrounds but in smaller rooms.

“Canyon Crest kids are used to testing wherever, but Torrey kids are used to doing the written in classrooms and going to the recording room for the recording,” Bennett said.

The reason this year the TP and CCA students were combined at the Fairgrounds was primarily a proctor issue.

Because the exam requires well-trained proctors who have experience administering the notoriously difficult test, this year’s shortage forced the district to test the TP and CCA students together.

“My biggest concern is I want strong proctors there,” Bennett said. “It’s an exam with a lot of detail and oversight to prepare for.”

The district has rented buildings at the Fairgrounds for AP testing for 10 years, Bennett said, and it’s generally been fine. Also, the large halls provide adequate space to meet the requirement that the foreign language students, for security reasons, must be seated at least eight feet apart, she said.

Taking students off-campus is better for AP testing because teachers and classes don’t need to be moved or interrupted and there are no noisy campus distractions like bells, loudspeakers and outside commotion.


High stakes tests

This year Bennett administered more than 7,000 exams and arranged for locations, proctors, equipment and materials that are intended to minimize disruption and stress and maximize student performance and focus.

Nevertheless, every year students of Spanish tests have recording problems and technical difficulties, she said.

Teachers too were upset. “They invested along with their kids,” she said. “It’s like a team losing on a technicality.

“The students not only want to show what they know for college but want to show their teachers how hard their work has paid off.”

For the re-test, the TPHS and CCA students will test on familiar territory. TP students will be in the labs and classrooms as in previous years, which will mean displacing at least three teachers for part of the day.

But at CCA, ensuring optimal audio conditions makes finding a suitable location more challenging. “We’re looking at a couple of spaces,” Bennett said, noting that the library echoes and the gym has too much activity.

The cost to rent the Fairgrounds for the two weeks of AP exams was about $11,000 this year, Bennett said, commenting that the price will go up significantly next year.

Whether AP Spanish language is tested next year at the Fairgrounds is to be decided, she said. Much depends on proctor availability and the number of students taking the AP classes, which helps determine about how many will sign up for the AP test.

The district may split up TP and CCA students again, she said, depending on the numbers. “We have to book for the greatest number possible based on their enrollment in their classes,” she said. In addition, there are native Spanish-speaking students who take the test.

The cost of AP exams this year, set by College Board, was $89, but the price is discounted for low-income students. The district charged an additional $16 per test to cover costs, although Bennett said the Spanish exam “has never ever broken even.”

Bennett said she was touched by the many emails from students eloquently describing their frustration over the experience. She said she was particularly moved by those who thanked her for her support and her time to rectify the problem.

“This is important high stakes stuff,” she said, sympathetically. “We try to do our very best. Hopefully the re-test will go as smooth as silk.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at