The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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