May 5, 2013

American Association of Teachers of French
Mailcode 4510
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901

ACTFL Headquarters
1001 N Fairfax Street Suite
200 Alexandria, VA 22314

Dear ACTFL and AATF:

I write on behalf of a student who just took the National French Exam. I need some clarification from you, the two national parent organizations which guide my instruction as a high school French teacher here in Denver Public Schools.

In the ACTFL standards, as expressed in the Three Modes of Communication and in the 90% Use position statement, nowhere do I see mention of discrete grammar concepts as indicators of Proficiency. Yet, on this year’s level 2 National French Exam, sponsored by AATF), 30% of the questions (20 out of 70) asked questions about discrete grammar. This confuses me.

Shouldn’t the National French Contest fully align with the Proficiency Guidelines of ACTFL? Is it not unfair to my students to ask them to compete on a national exam that is not aligned with the national standards? Don’t my students have a right to be tested by AATF according to the national standards, since I am expected to teach to those standards?

Specifically, when I begin to prepare my students for next year’s exam, must I direct my instruction to those 20 of 70 questions that this year required knowledge of exact spelling and rules of agreement, verb forms, gender, object pronoun spelling, etc., as described below? Please correct me if I am misreading anything here – I am genuinely confused. I am getting two distinctly different messages from two national parent organizations.

My student scored as follows this year:

1. On the entire exam, she missed 12, with a score of 58 out of 70 (82%), for the tenth ranked score in the state of Colorado.
2. Had the grammar questions not been included on the test, however, she would have missed 5 out of 50 (90%).

The way the state rankings are set up, this difference between an 82% and a 90%would have made a significant difference in how she was ranked, which could make a difference in attracting the attention of college scholarship programs, which, since she lives in poverty, is her target in all this.

Specifically, this student missed 3 of 30 listening questions, and 2 of 20 of the reading questions, and 7 of the 20 grammar questions.

So the problem is clear. My student this year did not get the instruction in grammar because I align my instruction fully with ACTFL, as I have been told to do by my district, so you can understand my concern and need for clarification.

Is ACTFL driving the curriculum agenda nationally? If so, then I would expect that AATF would fully reflect their recommendations, which, unless I am wrong, state that students be evaluated in terms of Proficiency and not in terms of discrete grammar points.

In reading the specifications for each level on the AATF website I did notice that the Grammar section of the exam, those 20 questions (#30-#50) were not even labeled as a Grammar section, as were the Listening and Reading sections. I wonder about that. Perhaps it was just an oversight.

On your website you specify the following as necessary for success on the test:

All common regular -er, -ir and -re verbs
The four irregular verbs avoir, être, aller, faire.  Eight additional irregulars: mettre, prendre, dormir, sortir, partir, vouloir, pouvoir, savoir
Regular -er, -ir and -re verbs at passé composé, along with passé composé of the above mentioned irregular verbs avoir, être, aller, faire, mettre, prendre, dormir, sortir, partir.  Common « être » verbs vs. « avoir »
Pronominal verbs only at present
Imperfect might be used in listening comprehension and reading selections, but not tested as a grammar item
Agreement and position of all adjectives
Comparatives and superlatives of regular adjectives and adverbs plus.que, moins. .que
Interrogative pronouns: qui, qui est-ce qui, que, qu’est-ce que, quoi
Object pronouns with verbs at present tense, use of one pronoun only – le, lui, y, en., etc…
Use of prepositions with geographical names à, en, au, aux
Simple negations rien, jamais, personne, plus
All regular imperatives, including mangeons, finissons
All possessive adjectives, notre…., leur…..

Clearly there is a discrepency here, one that needs to be addressed, so teachers like me can know what to teach. Don’t you that think AATF should fully align with ACTFL in their articulation and assessment of skills taught in American classrooms? This would certainly be an interesting headline to read in the Education section of the Huffington Post (I went to high school with Michael Huffington): “High School Language Teacher Sues Professional Organization Over National Standards”.

Please let me know what you think.

One further note:

Please understand that my purpose in all this is to help my student to get into college. She is Latino and since she lives in poverty a scholarship is the only way she can get to college, so my questions here bear heavily on her future. She is only a 9th grader and if I can get my questions answered I will know how to prepare her for the 2014 National French Contest so that she can score higher than tenth place next year and thus greatly increase her chances at a scholarship.

It is particularly important to note here is that recent research shows that in the college acceptance process non-resident students are typically more affluent than resident students because only affluent households can afford non-resident tuition prices. Therefore, growth in non-resident college students may crowd-out enrollment opportunities for students from low-income households who live in the state. It would be a shame to see my student lose out in her quest for college because she is a minority student.



31 thoughts on “Dear AATF”

  1. Well done! I must say that even the National Latin Exam has done away with discreet grammar questions and replaced them with in context grammar questions. And yet, when we take our kids to the State Latin Convention and they sign up to compete in reading comprehension (because we excel at that) they come away, rightly so, angry because the vast majority of the questions on a Reading Comp test were–discreet grammar questions.

    Will you actually send the letter? I am assuming that AATF is the organization that creates the exam, no?

  2. It’s not a question of whether I send it. Rather, I am trying to decide if I send it as is, or turn it over to a lawyer and pay them whatever to rewrite it and put it on the letterhead. I think I’m going with (b).

    I’m not trying to be snarky. I really am confused about which horse to hook my cart up to, and I do feel that it is a service, not an attack, to call attention to the imbalance here.

    One would think that the two organizations would align. Almost 20,000 students took the exam at level 2 alone. Some were taught by teachers who, like me, tried consciously to align with ACTFL, so that needs to be resolved.

    And I really did go to Culver Military Academy in IN with Michael Huffington. I don’t know if he is still in contact with Arianna. It doesn’t hurt to drop the name, though. I intend to get a response.

  3. UGGGGH! I keep getting the emails from my local AATF chapter listing the “winners”. I have not administered this test since I began using CI but my colleagues love to give these exams. Basking in the reflected glory of their “results” – which are mostly the high score in the school – make them feel special at the awards assembly. I watch this bs from the bleachers praying that no one asks me: “Why don’t the French kids take the national French exam?” I hate it. These kinds of elitist tests are used as cudgels by those who will need to have their grammar books and worksheets pried from their cold, dead hands -to borrow a phrase. It makes me sooooooo angry. They also use the taking of these tests as a reason to continue doing the same old stuff. THEN, they complain that the kids are too stupid to learn a language, at least “their” language. I even had a colleague tell me that she would rather not teach “her language”, if the quality of the student did not improve. WTF????? And our students pay $15000+ a year tuition! With a very short and often interrupted teaching year, I told anyone who wanted to take the national exam could sit with me during lunch and work on practice exams – they came – once. Needless to say, I loved every word of your letter and I am anxiously waiting for their (non) response. Sorry for the rant. It’s over.

    1. And just to be clear. This child is in need of a scholarship to college. Thus, I play. And in the interest of full disclosure, when I walk around the building announcing this score to every admin I see, kind of casually, I further support what we are doing in WL at Lincoln High School. People believe that shit. They even believe those statements at the school wide awards ceramony where kids are honored for their 39 out of 70, 11 correct points below the national average on that test, as being the best in the BUILDING. That’s some good smack talk there. You are so right Carol about how this is a game traditional teachers use to further perpetuate their massive decades old lie on an unsuspecting public. They should have been yanked out of their buildings years ago. In my opinion.

      1. I don’t understand what you meant here. What do you mean by “Thus, I play”? What’s the connection between your student needing a scholarship and you playing? Playing what?

  4. I told my department chair two years ago that my teaching method was for acquisition. I was not planning my lessons to satisfy the dual credit lady at the local community college – who thought my exams did not look rigorous enough – code for no grammar and I was definitely not teaching with the goal of getting successful results on the National French Exam. 120 teaching days;40 minute periods! No way.

  5. With you all the way. It is a matter of justice (what I like to call equity in the classroom), and if I had to decide who went foul–ACTFL or a Language specific association, it would take me only a millisecond to decide. AATF needs to hear from you.

    1. It’s not enough that eight years ago a kid who eventually went to Stanford in Nanotechnology found a (content, not grammar) error on that same exam, one missed by six native speaking editors and the guy who recorded the passage. My student simply heard that the boat went around the north, not the south, end of the island, in one of the listening passages, but the correct answer – really the wrong answer – was that the boat went around the south end of the island. So when I called them, AATF, and requested that they look into it, they admitted it was wrong but refused to change his score from 69 to 70 on the exam. Why? They had already graded 22,000 exams and didn’t want to change all those. Anyway, the nature of the interchange with them was bad. No sense of professionalism was there. I felt like I was bothering them with this information. One person in Carbondale refused to deal with it and shuffled me off to someone else. It was just stupid until I asked the kid if he really cared and he said no. We dropped it. AATF needs another buzzcut from me. This is it.

      1. Bah, not changing his grade for correcting native speakers is not just unprofessional, it’s bloody cruel. It means we accept wrong demands in favor of people. They really need to be taught. I think actually that story should get to the papers: “The boy who proved them wrong” or something…
        And I think with regard to that history, you probably ought to come back with a lawyer. I bet they listen then.

      2. Ooooooooo…….you are showing up for ‘Round 2’ with AATF in a big way, Ben!

        I, for one, hope you go for it. They are careless and cocky. They need to be challenged.

        Legal action is not for sissies, my friend! Are you ready to go all the way for this student?

  6. Jennifer in NJ

    Go set some fires, Ben! At the very least, if all else fails, this student will know someone was willing to fight for her. Poor kid.

  7. Michael Nagelkerke

    Does anybody have their kids take the National Spanish Exam? Just looking at the NSE standards, it looks like it’s based half on Grammar, and half on Proficiency:

    What does the test measure?

    The National Spanish Examinations are standards-based assessments that measure both achievement and proficiency, but measure them separately.
    1. The achievement section of the test assesses content standards through specifications for vocabulary and specifications for grammar.

    2. The proficiency section of the test assesses performance standards as defined by the National Spanish Examination Proficiency Levels. The NSE assesses Interpretive Communication through both reading comprehension and listening comprehension.

    Does anyone have experience with it? Is it 50% Grammar, 50% Proficiency? If it isn’t so heavy on grammar (Maybe 20%/80% in favor of proficency), then I’d consider having my students take the test, but otherwise, I wouldn’t want to dedicate so much time to teaching grammar.

    1. Robert Harrell

      I have never asked my students to take the National German Exam, and I see no reason to start now. My goals are for students to
      1. have a foundation of language that will be the basis for further acquisition
      2. know how to continue acquiring a language, even if they never take another language class
      3. love the language enough to want to continue

      The national exams partially address – at best – one of my three stated goals. Why should I waste my students’ time on something that doesn’t measure what is important?

      But what do I know, I just have impacted German classes.

    2. Check out my study. My tprs kids kicked my grammar kids’ asses on the NSE.

      Doesn’t mean you should administer it though. I only did for my master’s paper.

      1. This is what I am hoping this year Chris. The NYS Regents exams have been “eliminated” and replaced by tests created by “local” teachers that no one can identify. Rumor has it that some of the levels now include Grammar and Vocabulary (could be over 1/2 of the test). The tests are given in a few weeks and we will have no idea about the format until the day it’s given…..hoping that our kids kick it!

        with love,

        1. I used to teach in NYC and would give the Regents test in Spanish. Looking up info for AP, I came across info about the changes, and I wondered what the local chapters would do. The Regents are so carefully crafted and have such a long history of relying on student’s global language skills.

          Sad to see the old Regents go…

        2. Laurie, I can ease your fears – the test will look exactly like it did in the past. I should know, because…….. (you get my drift, but I didn’t tell you that) 🙂

          1. Actually, I hope I can ease your fears since I’m talking about the German exam. I’m pretty sure they follow the same guidelines for the all the languages. You’re talking about the FLACS exam, right? That’s the one replacing the NYS Regent’s and Proficiency exams.

      2. In early December of this school year, a Spanish II student of mine (a superstar) moved. Her new Spanish teacher is grammar-based. She e-mailed me the week before she had to take the NSE, begging for help. I talked to her for about an hour and helped her with some of those discreet grammar items. She texted me last week – she got the highest score in her class, one bronze medal among 8 or 9 honorable mentions. I read that that puts her in the 75th to 84th percentile – but I think it’s telling that coming from a TPRS background, she outscored all of those grammar students.

      3. Hi Chris, is there a way you could share a copy of your study with me? A fellow French teacher of mine in my disctrict is becoming interested in CI/stories, but is worried about preparing students for a soon-to-be instituted statewide language exam in North Carolina. I think your study results would be helpful to her. Only if you mind me sharing it of course.

        1. Oops…just posted this in the wrong spot. If you’re reading this Chris, I’ll just try to send you an email right now.

  8. Been checking out for a bit from things related to school as I focus on moving, finishing up the school year, planning summer trips, reading etc, but I just wanted to say that this post made me smile REAL BIG. Especially that letter. So well written and to the point. Excellent, Ben. I hope your student gets the justice that she deserves.

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