College Board Mandates In-Person Administration of AP Spanish Exam, Fueling Concerns and Controversy

Mia Penner, Grade 11, Co-Editor-in-Chief

After months of uncertainty, the College Board released key information in March regarding the administration of the 2021 Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Due to lingering Coronavirus concerns, schools will have the option of administering all exams at home or in person––that is, with the exception of foreign language exams.


According to the recent update, foreign language exams may “only be administered in a proctored school setting.” This new policy means that a select group of sophomores, juniors, and seniors enrolled in AP Spanish Language and Culture will take a full-length exam in school on May 21. The decision has sparked controversy among students and faculty at the High School of American Studies, fueling safety concerns and apprehension about unpreparedness.


While the safety risk posed by administering the exam in person is minor, it has become a point of contention among HSAS students.


At the present moment—and certainly by the end of May—most teachers and school staff have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. All New York residents over the age of 16 are now eligible for the vaccine as well, meaning that many AP Spanish students will have received at least one dose of the vaccine when they take the exam. Moreover, New York City schools have implemented mask and distancing mandates to diminish the spread of Covid-19.


Nonetheless, the College Board’s policy gives students no alternative to taking the exam in a school setting and potentially exposing themselves to the Coronavirus. “Even though our administrators and staff have taken the necessary precautions and implemented the protocols recommended by the CDC, state, local, and DOE officials, there are always risks involved,” said Ms. Rosanny Genao, who teaches AP Spanish Language and Culture at HSAS.


The bigger concern appears to be unpreparedness. Unlike the AP exams administered at home, students will not have access to notes or other resources during the AP Spanish test. Without notes to fall back on, many students feel woefully unprepared for the upcoming exam—especially given that live class time has been drastically reduced this school year.


Live classes may be especially important for AP Spanish students because learning a language requires immersion and consistent practice. In a normal year, HSAS students have Spanish classes four times a week. But due to school closures, each class now meets live just two times a week, with the other two days being devoted to asynchronous assignments. Ms. Genao was able to negotiate a third live Spanish class for the second semester, but many students still feel unprepared for the impending exam.


“Although Ms. Genao has made a strenuous effort to teach us Spanish culture and history in order to prepare us for the AP Spanish test in May, learning in-person versus over Zoom is extremely different,” said Laura Yam, a junior taking AP Spanish Language and Culture. “I don’t get to participate as much and it is harder to ask questions in class or ask the teacher to slow down, which makes me feel underprepared and nervous for the test.”


Alexis Guberman, a senior who is also enrolled in AP Spanish, echoed Yam’s concerns. “I am most worried about timing. Being online we haven’t had the chance to learn all the material, and we’ve only taken one full test this year,” she said. “We also normally learn four or five days a week, and now we are only doing three so we will not have learned everything.”


Even Ms. Genao worries that she has not had enough class time to adequately prepare her students for the exam. “I have had to shorten every unit in the hopes of giving a brief, but effective overview of the curricular themes that make up our AP exam,” she said. “I think all of us understand that these are unprecedented times and we want to do our best to learn as much as we can, but we have to be realistic and cover a good, but healthy and necessary part of our curriculum.”


The situation is especially worrisome because many students across the country have been attending school full time, and the exam is curved based on student performance across the board. HSAS students may perform worse than those who have been attending school for five days a week, possibly resulting in lower scores.


The College Board’s decision to administer foreign language exams in person has enraged language teachers across the city, prompting the New York City Department of Education to step in. “Obviously, I am beyond disappointed—as are many AP Spanish Language teachers from around the city—about the College Board’s decision to administer this and a few other world languages tests in person,” said Ms. Genao. “It is unfair and unnecessary on so many levels, but hopefully the College Board will reconsider as the DOE’s in negotiations with them about this particular issue.”


As of the time of publication, no changes have been made regarding the administration of AP exams despite the DOE’s efforts.


While it certainly seems unfair, the College Board’s decision to administer foreign language exams in a school setting may be practical. After all, students have access to translators at home, which makes it difficult to accurately measure their grasp of a foreign language. Still, the College Board has had ample time to develop the 2021 AP exams and may have been able to conceive a suitable alternative.


Despite the unfortunate situation, Ms. Genao has faith in her AP Spanish students and encourages them to look on the bright side. “We have to look at the glass half full here—by the time the APs come around, we’ll be more than ready. Then after, we’ll look back and we will feel so proud of how we have pushed ourselves and how strong we’ve kept all year long despite undergoing so much,” she said.