Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

2019 has been the year of the Equity and Diversity Statement in Classics. The American Classical League released two statements this year. The March statement affirmed, “We embrace ‘all people who have an interest in the ancient world from all levels of instruction, stages of life, and backgrounds.’ Then, in May, after criticism of problematic promotional materials, the American Classical League released a statement condemning racist and white supremacist ideas and listing proposed actions to make “Classics for Everyone” a reality.

In April, also in response to criticism that exam questions sanitize slavery and sexual violence, the National Latin Exam Committee also released a statement promising to create “exams with inclusive, affirming questions and passages,” and added, “We are grateful for those who have raised concerns about diversity, inclusion, and equity and welcome future dialogue regarding ways the NLE can support these values.”

Statements must be the starting point for meaningful action, not just reactive public relations moments in response to public criticism. The first meaningful action should be answering a simple question: Who takes Latin? Without this information, it is impossible to implement and measure the effectiveness of solutions for making our field more inclusive and diverse. 

Unfortunately, the only information we have on the demographics of our field at the secondary level is the College Board data on Advanced Placement program participation. In 2018, only 6,409 students took the AP Latin exam; in 2019, only 6,117. We know from this data that only 3.5% of students who take the AP Latin exam are black. We also know that this percentage has not changed since 1999. While these data confirms what many of us know to be true about under-representation in Latin, they only tell us who is taking AP Latin. We do not have information about who is taking Latin outside of AP Latin programs. 

There is a better source for data. In 2018, 143,952 students of all levels registered for the National Latin Exam. If NLE collected information about race and ethnicity, we would have a much clearer picture of the current state of Latin. The NLE already collects information about the types of schools participating in their exam. Including a separate question for teachers about racial/ethnic enrollment at the school could also provide information about under-representation in the field. Instead, despite statements about diversity, the ACL-sponsored NLE is not including any questions related to race and ethnicity on their 2020 exam. 

As professional organizations and Classics programs at post-secondary institutions look towards the Future of Classics, the NLE would provide a valuable service to the field by collecting and publicizing this information. In response to my most recent request, I was told that the NLE Committee is concerned that answering a question about demographics would cause students of color to do poorly on the exam. This phenomenon is called a stereotype threat, and I agree that this is a problem in Classics. According to research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, stereotype threat is a condition of “being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group.”  

As a practical solution to this concern, the question could be moved to a pre-registration day or to the end of the exam. Moving the exam question to the end, or refusing to ask the question altogether, does not eliminate stereotype threat in the context of the exam or the field as a whole. Which scenario would trigger more anxiety about prejudice and stereotypes: Answering a question about one’s identity or surveying the testing room as the only person of color in a nearly all-white space? Steele and Aronson affirm that the stress of being the “sole representative of a social category” can inhibit memory during academic tasks. 

There are many ways to mitigate and even eliminate stereotype threat that do not involve a ban on questions related to race and ethnicity on exams. For example, according to 2014 research from Toni Schmader and William Hall, increasing diversity can reduce stereotype threat. They wrote, “The impact of broader representation in educational and organizational environments is that group-based stereotypes begin to break down.” Ideally, a Latin student should be able to indicate a minority race or ethnicity on an NLE demographic question and feel pride instead of anxiety. Data will not make this scenario a reality, but it will make it possible to set goals with measurable outcomes. 

The NLE’s refusal to collect data in the name of marginalized students does not protect these students; rather, it perpetuates systemic injustice by hiding under-representation in the field. Who benefits from not collecting data? Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA explained in a book chapter on the importance of data, “Those in power may fear the consequences of data and probably are not prepared to take action to alleviate group problems because data and tools for the assessment of progress are essential parts of serious reform strategies… Denial of problems and refusal to collect or publish data on sensitive issues are typical responses of those wanting to preserve the status quo.” Not collecting data is a deliberate, political decision to maintain the status quo. 

As long as the composition of the field is a secret, field-level conversations about diversity and will be theoretical at best and opportunistic at worst. With data, genuine commitment to equity and diversity can become measurable results.

Calls to Action: 

  1. The NLE should collect demographic data on the 2020 exam, and publicize that data in its 2020 report. If the answer sheet has been set, these data can be collected on a supplemental sheet for paper test-takers and can be added to the computer-based exam for other test-takers.
  2. As a sponsor of the NLE, the ACL should encourage the NLE to collect and release this data as a service to the field.
  3. The ACL should also continue their own efforts to “gather information about the demographics of Latin and Greek students nationwide,” as they wrote in their May 2019 statement.
  4. Professional associations that seek to foster classical studies throughout the country and through the collegiate level (e.g. SCS, CAMWS) should encourage and support the efforts of the NLE and use their data to help support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, outreach, and publication.
  5. Teachers should collect data on their own programs and take steps to make their classrooms more inclusive if they do not mirror the demographics of their schools. 

 

Image result for us census 1820
US Census 1820, from census.gov

3 thoughts on “Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

  1. rpatrick

    You article here touches on a number of issues within the teaching and learning of Classics, but as you so aptly point out, it’s hard to do much without good data.
    The conversation that took place after the panel that I participated in at ACL focused on this crucial missing piece: we just don’t have good data collection. Ultimately, we need something better than the NLE to gather data because not even the NLE encompasses all programs, but you are clear about that: until we DO have better data collection, the NLE could provide basic demographics on those students and programs that participate in it. It’s not a small number, and at least the NLE committee would have better information to help it see itself, its aims and its results more clearly. That data, if shared, could also be informative to the rest of us.
    Thank you for taking the time and thought to lay out these issues and quite frankly, to issue an important invitation in the way of action items.

  2. Pingback: National Latin Exam frenzy - Quatr.us Study Guides

  3. Pingback: National Latin Exam frenzy - Quatr.us Study Guides

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