I myself am a product of this maddening race to read classical authors, and as a 4%er, I actually flourished under this model. I myself have pushed students to achieve this goal. And why not? This is the tradition under which I learned Latin, and indeed in all of my undergraduate/graduate classes, this was our focus. And the AP curriculum certainly demands that our end result be that students can translate Caesar and Vergil.
But as I look at this model, there are some glaring holes:
1) I never actually was reading these works of Latin as Latin itself, but rather just as "re-translated English." And quite honestly, for me to translate these works, I also had to have a good Latin-English dictionary, a good Latin grammar book and then a copy of the English translation in order to verify my own translation - gosh, I suppose today's generation just needs an iPad to do all of this. I never truly read these works, because I was just translating/decoding. Research tells us that reading and translating are two completely different skills in the brain.
Now there is nothing wrong with translating per se, as translating establishes meaning. But the problem lies in that when all of our discussion centers around the English translation itself, then it ceases to be about Latin any longer.
At my first Rusticatio, one of our sessions centered around reading a selection from Trimalchio's Dinner, and then discussing it in Latin. We discussed the comprehension of the passage - what was happening? who was doing what? what do you think will happen next? - all in LATIN. This was something which I had never done before and never knew that it could actually be done. Because it was not too difficult of a passage to read, I was not having to "translate" it into English but could understand it as Latin.
2) The works of Caesar, of Cicero and of Vergil are just too difficult for the average student to translate, let alone read just after 2-3 years of the language. According to ACTFL, after only 3 years of language study, students should be just at a Novice High/Intermediate Low language ability; Caesar would fall into the Advanced catetgory of reading (5-6 years of study), while Cicero and Vergil are Superior level authors (8+ years of study). Do we expect ELL learners to read Shakespeare after just 2-3 years of studying English? English is my primary language, and I myself cannot understand Shakespeare when I read his plays. We would never even consider asking students of Spanish to translate Don Quixote in their 3rd year of study.
In my AP Latin class, I find that most students will just copy down an English translation and memorize it when it comes to a "translation" quiz/test.
3) The wording/subject matter of these works is too difficult for 3rd/4th year students to understand. I have had students who were able to translate Caesar perfectly but did not have a clue of what he was saying due to its difficulty, i.e., there was no comprehension happening.
What about embedded readings of classical authors to aid students? I think that this is a great idea, and I myself use them. It, however, does not address the issue of the works themselves being too difficult for students to read. Rather, it offers a temporary solution.
I would rather see us as Latinists having 3rd/4th year students read easier classical readings, such as fables, and Medieval Latin - works which are very comprehensible for students to read. There is a treasure trove of Medieval Latin stories which are very readable for 3rd/4th year students, and because they are stories, they have plots - so much more interesting than translating a speech of Cicero where the context is so obscure! In my opinion, Medieval Latin is where it is at - I do not know why so many Classicists view Medieval Latin as if it were "poor man's Latin" and that the only Latin worth translating must come from the classical period.
But what about AP? Should I not begin preparing my students in Latin 1 to translate Caesar and Vergil? My response: AP probably only comprises 10% at best of one's total Latin program - why subject the other 90% to AP prep when it is apparent that they are not sticking around to take AP?For further thought on this, please read Kenneth Kitchell's article "Into Upper Level Latin - A Conversation."