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New York City
December 2001

New Autobiography Makes Great Gift
By Merri Rosenberg

Not bad for someone from Brooklyn.

As a fellow Brooklynite, it’s hard not to admire Stanley H. Kaplan’s sheer resourcefulness, enterprise and energy as he describes the path that led him from a modest home-based business as a tutor to a brand-name conglomerate that was synonymous with entrance test preparations around the world. By the time he sold his business to the Washington Post Company in 1984, the testing business generated $35 million in revenues; in 1999, the test preparation revenues were up to $151 million.

Imagine if fictional Francie Nolan, the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, had had a head for business instead of writing. That’s how Kaplan comes off in this engaging and illuminating memoir. Instead of hiding behind the brand, Kaplan reveals himself as a living, breathing human being whose roots and academic experiences help him understand the students who flock to his courses.

Born into modest circumstances in Flatbush to immigrant parents, Kaplan was aware from a very young age that education was important. Although his father ran a small plumbing business and his mother helped with the business, the family home was full of books. One of the more charming anecdotes that Kaplan shares is how, as a young boy, he charged his friends two cents a week to borrow one of his books.

As a diligent and ambitious student, Kaplan–like many of his precocious peers in those long-ago Brooklyn days–skipped some of his elementary grades, in his case part of second and third grades. The product of public schools, who got his first tutoring job at the age of 14 when he was a student at James Madison High School. Kaplan was accepted at Columbia College, but because he couldn’t afford the tuition, ended up matriculating at City College.

The turning point in his destiny came when he applied to five medical schools, in his quest to become a doctor, and was rejected from all of them, despite being ranked second in his class, an award winner of many academic prizes at City, and Phi Beta Kappa membership.

As Kaplan writes, “I remember the admissions process before standardized testing, and I believe these tests open doors, not close them.” So, unwilling to accept defeat, Kaplan turned to his first love–teaching. To understand the source of his justifiably great pride in the business he built, it helps to understand that before and above anything else, Kaplan saw himself as a teacher. As he writes, “I loved to teach–to plant new ideas–and that interest never waned. I had a knack for zooming in on a student’s weakness...And sharing in the achievements of my students ultimately became the primary reason for my success as a tutor.”

For Kaplan, the emergence of the SAT wasn’t a barrier for students, but a way to help students demonstrate their abilities in another way. “The SAT...could help democratize American education by ushering a larger, more diverse group of students into the world of higher education.” Kaplan is careful to point out that his system–starting with the SAT and moving through the various professional graduate exams, like the MCAT, LSAT, GRE, GMAT, and licensing exams–had far less to do with cramming students with material than with coaching them through the process of understanding the material and learning how to deal with it in a testing situation. As he says, his goal was to “teach the students to be critical thinkers. My classes were not cram courses.”

His sympathies were with the students who needed to do well on standardized exams in order to move onwards and upwards in the world. Small wonder that, for generations of students, “taking a Kaplan class became a rite of passage for middle-class kids who wanted to go to competitive schools.”

This book is especially timely, and compelling, as standardized tests are coming under fire yet again, with the latest salvo hurled from California, whose colleges and universities may drop the SAT from the admissions process.

To those who would see Kaplan as a businessman, that’s an inaccurate and incomplete image. Of course he was successful, and flourished. But far better to see him as a teacher who simply wanted to help as many students as possible fulfill their academic dreams.#

Test Pilot: How I Broke Testing Barriers For Millions Of Students And Caused A Sonic Boom In Business And Education by Stanley H. Kaplan with Anne Farris. Simon & Schuster: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore (2001), 175 pp


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