Caracas, Venezuela — She is in her final year of secondary school. Two years ago she made her choice between concentrating on the sciences or the humanities and chose science.
Since pre-kindergarten, she has had instruction in English as well as in Spanish in her private, church-related school. In fact, for the first six years of primary school, math and general science were taught in English. And for all 11 years of school, she has had classes in English language, grammar, and composition.
She plans to attend one of Venezuela's more competitive private universities, and hence was required to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
He is in his final year at Metropolitan University here, and also had schooling that provided some courses taught in English, some in Spanish. He, too, chose the scientific path and is continuing on to the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta.
He, too, took the SAT for entrance to his undergraduate college, and more recently took the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), both the general exam and the subject exam in mathematics.
Neither the SAT nor the GRE go high marks from either of these most capable students. Both scored in the top 10 percent.
I then talked with the directors of mathematics at two highly selective private schools where all the pupils take the SAT.
Conclusion: Muy malo! (very bad).
The criticism not only encompasses the way the questions are structured and the choice of responses given, but the translation itself.
Both professors and students agreed that the Spanish used is awkward, and that some of the phrases are archaic -- Spanish words and phrases no longer in common use even in academic circles.
This translation problem, the students explained, contributed significantly to slowing them down. They often had to waste valuable time puzzling out the meaning of the Spanish phrasing before being able to choose among the alternative responses.
But all were also sharply critical of the correct answers to some of the questions. They argue, one and all, that the examples are worded in such a way as to make ambiguous a decisive response, and that the final choice -- even, they argue, in the sample questions provided in the test booklet -- are questionable.
One excuse (or shall I call it explanation) that all those questioned gave for the possible faults is that the Spanish-language test from the Princeton, N.J., Educational Testing Service are prepared in Puerto Rico.
But when pressed, they assert that the exams cannot possibly be formulated in Spanish, even in Puerto Rico, but must just be subject to translations.
Since the students I talked with had received such high scores and since they could remember and cite specific examples of the poor translations and questions , I asked how they had possibly been able to score so high.
One reason given by all questioned is the quick mathematical computation that is such a strong part of their constant schooling here in Caracas. So the time required to puzzle out the obscure meanings for some of the questions is made up in part by the speed with which they can do the computation examples.
It seems a most curious and possibly easily corrected problem for Educational Testing Service and the governing boards of the SAT and GRE.
Surely the composing of examinations in present-day Spanish, a Spanish common to those examination-takers from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, is a basic requirement.
It is good to know that selective universities in Latin America think enough of the SAT and GRE tests to use them to help in the admissions process, but it would be even better to know that these tests were the work of native Spanish-speaking academicians, and not the work of translators selecting words from a dictionary.