Henningsen: SAT and American dreams

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(HOST) With a tip of his hat to Labor Day – just past – and the academic year – just beginning – commentator Vic Henningsen has an  "American Dream" story about a poor but honest youth who rises to fame and fortune on his own merits – and the consequences of his achievements.

(HENNINGSEN) Americans share a strong conviction that where you start doesn’t matter; it’s where you’re going that counts.  No one better illustrates that belief – or did more to help others achieve it – than test-prep mogul Stanley Kaplan, who died recently at age 90. Yet Kaplan’s story also raises a question about who gets to live the American dream.

Born into an immigrant working class family Kaplan, like many poor but gifted young men during the Depression, attended what was called "the poor man’s Harvard" – New York’s City College – finishing second in his class.  Yet he was denied admission to medical school because: (A) he was Jewish and (B) he came from a public college in an era where money and lineage largely determined who advanced educationally.  Had there been a standardized test, he argued later, he would have been able to prove that he was as smart as graduates of the private universities and been admitted.  His hopes dashed, he went into business as a tutor preparing students for the New York State Regents exams.

In the late 1940’s, with a flood of talented veterans entering college on the GI bill, America’s educational leaders began to realize that being named Lowell Cabot Adams IX or having been to a fancy prep school weren’t the only – and certainly not the best – credentials for college admission.  They developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a way of, they claimed, scientifically identifying the ablest candidates.  With typical omniscience, the College Board asserted that the SAT was the perfect rational arbiter.  Your scores were your scores. They couldn’t improve, because the test measured aptitude, not knowledge.

Although Kaplan welcomed standardized tests, he rejected the Board’s claim to perfection, arguing: "To say you can’t improve scores is to say you can’t improve students."  Focusing his test-prep efforts on the SAT,  Kaplan demonstrated that coaching could indeed improve scores. The College Board fought him every step of the way, but, in 1979, the Federal Trade Commission found in Kaplan’s favor, making him a rich man and boosting what would soon become a billion dollar test prep industry.

As historian Nicholas Lemann argues in his history of the SAT, The Big Test, the development of standardized testing was in many ways an admirable effort to replace an aristocracy with a meritocracy.  At the same time, it’s now clear that American higher education is dominated by a new elite – those good at taking such tests. And the test-prep industry caters to those who can afford to pay for their often expensive services.

Stanley Kaplan lived the classic American rags-to-riches story and helped millions of Americans do the same.  But his accomplishment is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences – that today’s solution does indeed become tomorrow’s problem.  For Kaplan played a major supporting role in replacing one elite with another:  he helped widen the playing field, not level it.

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