Testing Validity and Cancelling an Latin AP Exam

Recently the College Board group who runs the Advanced Placement AP exams decided to eliminate four exams for financial reasons. One of them was unfortunately, the Latin Literature exam which covered texts from major Latin authors. The odd thing was that they decided to keep the Vergil (exam) or just the author who wrote the Aeneid and other works.

As you can imagine, the high school Latin teacher community was very upset and confused. If you were going to cancel an exam why would you keep the more specific exam? Vergil is an important writer, but hardly the only one out there. Focusing exclusively on one epic poem could give you a very distorted view of Latin culture. It would be like asking English literature students to focus only on Milton’s Paradise Lost – great work, but it means you miss out on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, Toni Morrison and many more. Weird.

As it turns out, one instructor did write a letter to the College Board with her concerns and she did get a response from the College Board – but not one I might have expected.

As I understand it, the actual reason was that the College Board doesn’t want to continue this particular exam is that they don’t have enough resources to continue to create “psychometrically valid” questions for all of Latin literature (sticking with one author makes it much easier to test for validity.

However, as AP Latin Literature has slowly grown, it has approached the
threshold that, once reached, cannot support the type of exam design AP
Latin Literature uses (a test format that actually allows students to
choose which questions they do and do not answer). Because AP Latin
Literature allows students to choose which questions they answer, the
psychometric validity of the exam results will be subject to increased
risk as the program continues to grow, so the current exam design must
be discontinued following the May 2009 exam.

There is no such problem with the AP Latin: Vergil exam, which simply
needs a multi-million dollar investment (which we are making) to upgrade
design specifications and standard setting processes to ensure that as
the volume continues to grow, there is no risk to the quality and
reliability of the assessment. So we will continue to offer the AP
Latin: Vergil Exam in the near term, while working at the same time with
educators to determine whether we should, over time, change AP Latin:
Vergil to incorporate a larger number of authors.


I confess to being stunned. I agree that the College Board needs to invest wisely (they point out that many languages such as Greek, Russian, Korean and Portuguese have no AP exam), but there’s a disconnect in the process. Although testing validity is important, it looks like the original learning objectives are being lost. Surely one of the objectives of learning Latin literature in Latin is to be able to understand and translate a wide variety of Latin genres ranging from poetry to prose. Another must be to become acquainted with many aspects of Roman culture and political history – not just one epic poem.

Choosing psychometric validity over learning objectives is one reason “teaching to the test” has such a bad name.

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