For those who teach Italian in US schools, the advent of an Advanced Placement course in Italian language and culture three years ago was an epochal event, securing a future for the subject alongside Spanish and French and staving off competition from fast-growing programs in Japanese and Chinese.
The prospect that AP Italian might be eliminated has set off a reaction that might seem surprising, considering that 2,000 students took the Italian AP exam this year. Prominent Italian-American groups and Matilda Cuomo, wife of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, have mobilized to save the course. Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta has also weighed in with the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program.
"We cannot have the Italian program eliminated. It is too important to us," said Maria Wilmeth, codirector of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington.
The situation illustrates the sway of the AP program, which measures high school students against the standards of college. The program has emerged alongside International Baccalaureate and Cambridge as the top tier for college-bound juniors and seniors. Good scores on end-of-course exams can yield credit and advanced standing in college.
Leaders of the College Board decided in late March to eliminate four of the programs 37 courses, including AP Italian, saying the four were underenrolled and losing money. The last tests for French literature, Latin literature, and computer science are scheduled for May. The AP Italian course might be saved if sufficient funds could be raised, said officials with the College Board, which is based in New York.
The announcement has reverberated beyond the 12,000 students involved in annual AP testing in the four courses, tiny numbers compared with the hundreds of thousands of students tested each year in English literature, calculus, and US history.
High school teachers, college professors, and other proponents of the targeted courses fear nothing less than the extinction of their academic pursuits. Advanced Placement has become so entrenched in the nation's schools that the elimination of a test can imperil an entire field of study.
"I have kids that love Italian and would love to take it to that level, and it is an intellectual level of work that they deserve," said Paola Scazzoli, a teacher at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., who wrote parts of
the AP Italian exam. "Look, if you take away the Italian AP now, you are breaking the program."
Advanced Placement courses are crucial to foreign-language departments, which compete for students with other subjects and with each other. For students, choosing a language often boils down to what is available and looks good on a transcript. Increasingly, many look for AP classes.
Latin teachers fear the loss of the Latin literature course will extinguish interest in the likes of Horace and Ovid, whose works are taught largely to prepare students for the test. Latin and French teachers fear losing competitive footing to Spanish, a discipline that boasts two popular AP courses.
The loudest protests have come from the Italian-language teachers, who stand to be cut from the AP program altogether. The other three courses - French, Latin, and computer science - will remain in the AP program, but with one test instead of two. In each case, the course being eliminated is not as popular as the class that is to remain.
Italian has never commanded more than a fraction of the foreign-language market, though interest in the language is rising. Italian consistently ranks with French as a foreign tongue that appeals to many students. In US schools, Italian is seen to lack the practicality of Spanish, the scholarly pedigree of Latin and the established tradition of French.
The Italian government and prominent Italian-American groups lobbied to create the Italian AP exam and put up $500,000 to subsidize it. The governments of China and Japan, too, subsidized the recent creation of AP tests in those languages.