Read an Excerpt
From chapter 2: My 54-Year Love Affair with the SAT
I'll never forget my introduction to the SAT. It was 1946. I was at the home of a high school junior named Elizabeth, who lived near Coney Island, to help her with intermediate algebra. As we sat down at her kitchen table, she said, "Mr. Kaplan, I need to take an important test. It's called the SAT. Can you help me?"
I had heard of the SAT, then the acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but I had never prepared anyone to take it. The test had been administered since 1926 by the College Entrance Examination Board, a nonprofit organization of member colleges founded at Columbia University in New York City. These member colleges, primarily highly selective schools such as Yale and Princeton, had used the SAT for years as part of their admissions process. Now after World War II, more colleges than ever were using the SAT for admission as increasing numbers of returning veterans wanted to attend college with federally funded tuition. Harvard also used the SAT to award scholarships to needy students based on their intellectual capabilities, not their pedigree or social status.
Elizabeth handed me a booklet published by the College Board that contained a dozen pages of general information about the test, including a description of the test, fees, and test dates. It also included sample questions. These had been added to reduce the element of surprise for the students even though some College Board members had objected to adding the sample questions because they might promote "cramming" at the last minute.
I looked at the sample questions, and a broad smile stretched across my face. It was love at first sight. These questions were different from those on the Regents or other tests for which I had prepared students. For instance, one question asked, "Approximately 820 tons of water per second fall over each of the 11 gates of the Grand Coulee Dam. If the same total amount of water were to fall over only 5 gates, how many tons per second would fall over each gate?" I could see that the questions were designed to test students' knowledge and application of basic concepts, not their ability to regurgitate memorized facts. There were no pat answers. A student could take this test with an open textbook and still not answer the questions easily or correctly.
As I scanned the information booklet, my eye glanced at a statement that said "cramming or last-minute reviewing" had no purpose and was not advised. I remember thinking, "Not review for a test?" Now I was really interested. I wondered why the College Board would include such a statement.
"Sure, I can help you," I told her enthusiastically. This test was right up my alley, because it was an innovative test based on problem solving, not rote memorization. That was exactly how I liked to teach. I took the booklet home with me, wondering how I could help Elizabeth study for a test I had never seen. I spent the evening and next morning looking over the booklet and creating simulated questions. They were all the same as in the sample booklet, but entirely different because I made up questions on identical topics with new examples. The challenge was exhilarating. I was thrilled with the idea of teaching Elizabeth to think out her answers. Tutoring for the Regents was fun, and students learned a lot. But tutoring for the SAT would be more fun, because Elizabeth would have to think harder and apply a broader range of math and verbal skills.
In 1946, the SAT was a two-and-a-half-hour multiple-choice exam given nationally four times a year on designated Saturday and Wednesday mornings. Students didn't pass or fail but were ranked by scores ranging from 200 to 800 points for each of the math and verbal portions. The scores of each portion were added together so that the lowest possible SAT score was 400 and the highest was 1600. But in 1946, students never learned their test scores. They were sent to the colleges to which students applied and, on special request, to the students' schools with the condition that the scores be withheld from parents and students. A student had no idea of his standing in the application process when a college used SAT scores as part of its admissions consideration. The SAT didn't have the same influence in the admissions process in 1946 as today because the test was still not widely used, but more colleges were beginning to consider using the test scores in the admissions process.
The College Board was promoting the SAT to students, parents, and teachers as a well-honed research product designed to measure students' academic abilities regardless of where in the nation they attended high school. That made the SAT attractive to admissions officials because the quality of schools and grading systems varied so greatly from region to region. Some schools handed out A's like party favors, while others were as stingy with A's as Scrooge on Christmas Eve. And an A from a private school in New York might carry a different weight from an A from a Topeka public school. A student's grade point average (GPA) was a good indicator of a student's academic ability, but the SAT was becoming the nation's new academic yardstick. It could predict how well a student would perform during the first six months of college, and it could safeguard against grade inflation and poor, less demanding curricula.
I could tell from the sample questions that this systematic and demanding test would require a methodical approach to preparation. The SAT required a variety of skills, ranging from familiarity with the multiple-choice format to knowledge on a variety of subjects. I could see that some students would need to learn the information on the SAT for the first time, while others would need to review subjects they had learned years earlier. Elizabeth, for instance, hadn't worked with percentages or decimals since the sixth grade, but percentage questions were on the SAT math section. Few high school students would remember that .2 X .2 = .04 and not .4. For her, I would be the Brush-Up Guy -- no different from what I had been to other students.
The SAT also expected students to know not just the "what" of subjects, but also the more important "how and why." I remember the moment I learned this crucial difference in how we learn. My college science professor Dr. Goldforb was an expert in posing a question, finding an answer, and then reaching one step further. One day, he asked the class a question about a swallowtail's antennae, and I quickly raised my hand to volunteer the answer.
"Very good, Stanley," Dr. Goldforb said. But he didn't stop there. "But tell me why that is the answer."
"Why?" I pondered. "Hmm. Why." Reciting a factual answer was not good enough. Why was my answer correct? he asked. And how had I reached it? From then on, I encouraged my students to think things out, to think about the hows and whys. Learning to ask the hows and whys of information was essential in preparing for the SAT because it tested students on reading comprehension, problem solving, math concepts, and vocabulary skills with questions that required them to comprehend and understand the subject matter.
Teaching Elizabeth to prepare for the SAT was a challenge because it was different from tests students took at school. I could see from the SAT instruction booklet that there were tricky questions and even trickier answers with more than one good choice. Some of the choices were better than others, but there was only one best choice. Answering SAT questions required focus, reasoning, and practice. Acquiring test-taking skills is the same as learning to play the piano or ride a bicycle. It requires practice, practice, practice. Repetition breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds confidence. Confidence breeds success. So I gave Elizabeth pages of vocabulary and reading comprehension drills, math problems, and vocabulary questions that I had created to simulate the SAT. I saw the results: she was becoming a powerful problem solver and a more confident test taker.
On test day, she had a clear advantage over the other students. She knew what to expect, and the SAT questions didn't throw her for a loop. She was able to tackle the questions using the strategies I had taught her and finished the test with time to spare. The test was, in her words, "a piece of cake," and she passed the word to her friends. When five of them called to ask for my help to prepare for the SAT, I suggested they all come as a group because I didn't have enough time to teach them individually and the tuition for each student would be much less expensive.
It was my first class to prepare students for the SAT, and it charted my path for the future. My first SAT preparation program consisted of four-hour weekly classes lasting sixteen weeks. The cost was $128, a charge that parents were happy to pay compared to what they would be paying for college tuition. "Go to Stanley Kaplan," students passed the word. "He can help you get into the college of your choice." A year after my first set of SAT classes, I had two hundred students enrolled for SAT preparation. Never could I have imagined the impending explosion in standardized testing that would leave me riding the crest of a swelling wave of educational change.
I began to think more about the SAT and how it affected education and students' aspirations. The SAT provided a more level playing field -- and I liked that. It could help democratize American education by ushering a larger, more diverse group of students into the world of higher education. It could give students the opportunity to get into the top colleges without attending a prestigious private school or being the child of an alumnus or big contributor. A test like this one might have gained me entry to medical school, and I wanted one aspect of my tutoring business to be preparing students for a test that could help them get into college based on their academic merit.