secrets of the sat
absolutely nothing here

Jonathan Grayer: He is President and CEO of Kaplan Educational Centers, the largest test preparation center in the country. Launched in 1938, the company claims to have helped three million students study for the SAT in the past 60 years.
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Why should we keep a test that reduces knowledge to a set of isolated facts, and turns reasoning into an exercise of checking boxes, and drives two million kids insane every year?

I think I reject some of these suppositions of the sentence. The SAT plays an important role in helping admissions officers around the country sort out students, well-deserving students from 20,000 high schools that have different curriculums, different grading standards, and different ability to help students get ready for college.

And the SAT, while imperfect and certainly an anxiety-producing event for almost everyone who takes it, does provide some value in the admissions process.

Do you think the SAT is a worthless test?

The SAT provides an important function. It has limitations. It has biases that are well reported. It hasn't been changed in four decades, and as technology changes, and our better understanding of how people learn change, so should the SAT. But the notion that the test, because it has imperfections, is not a valid instrument is just wrong-footed. I mean the admissions process is very competitive. At some of our most competitive universities, 17 times the amount of students that can go to the school, apply. And these applicants are from all over the country, and admissions officers need ways to sort through them. The SAT is just one of those things.

Without the SAT,you'd have a lot more outcry of favoritism.  Alumni connections would be even more important than they are because there'd be so many students who had similar backgrounds. And I think that would be a rallying cry for claims of favoritism, or prejudice in the process for any group that was undermined in that process--that you took away the objective standard I would like to see the SAT improved, no doubt about it. But there are people who attack the SAT. Some of those even benefit from the SAT financially. Because it makes good press, and people cover it, and there's two sides to every issue.

But the fact of the matter is, we sort through how teenagers should be admitted to colleges and universities, the first big step in their adult life. And the SAT plays a valid role. If there's something better out there, we should use it. If there's something affordable that we can create, we should all by all means do it. But at the end of the day, that's a very serious proposition, deciding if a child gets in or not, and the SAT helps.

What would be wrong with chucking the SAT?

Chucking the SAT would cause all kinds of problems. And I think you have to go back to why the SAT was created. It was created to put an objective measure in the admissions packet of a student, students applying from all over the country. And at the time it was used, it was thought to be a way to open up admission for students who were not getting admitted in the percentage of the population from which they came.

So it was originally a device used to open up admission. Now lots of people attack it because they think it reduces chances. It creates anxiety. The idea of chucking the SAT doesn't really address the underlying issue, which is how do you sort through those applications?

If you get rid of the SAT, you have gotten rid of some controversy. You also have taken a valuable measure out of the equation, albeit not the only measure. Even the most important, or the top three, but an important one nonetheless.

If you take it out, you're still left with sorting. You're still left with deciding who gets in and who doesn't. And most good schools have plenty of people, more than they need, that have near A averages, that are strong in extracurricular activities, that have alumni parents. And at the end of the day, there's going to be a way that those applications are sorted. And at that root is really what the controversy about the SAT is. If you get rid of it, you're still going to have that issue to deal with.

You say the SAT is a valid test of basic skills...

On a certain day.

Some people say the test is only measuring tricks on how somebody takes a test.

When a child is born, that child knows nothing about the Pythagorean theorem. At least when I was born, I knew nothing, and I would argue that none of the viewers know anything about the Pythagorean theorem. Yet, the Pythagorean theorem shows up on almost every SAT test form.

If you are not familiar with the Pythagorean theorem, if you do not know how to use it, and have not felt comfortable using it under a stressful test environment, you are not going to do well on that question.

To say that that is about tricks, to say that is about gimmicks is just to shortchange what that test is. Now, there are tricks, there are advantages that students get from learning those tricks. And they will marginally change the score. But the kind of gaps that you're describing, and the kinds of basic skills, the validity of the basic skills test that the SAT measures shouldn't be thrown out or lost because there are certain tricks that we can teach, or anyone can teach, about doing better on the SAT, especially if you don't know exactly the right answer.

How much does your average test for the average kid cost?

Our course costs about $800.

For what?

For a bunch of material that comes in the form of books, in software, in online access. It's 15 to 20 classes, access to your teacher in a 101, a group tutoring format kind of supportive, moral support as a test approaches, and just a best friend in your corner as you get ready for the exam. That's what the course comprises of. Plus a set of peers that are going through the same experience you are.

And for that, do you make a guarantee? What do you promise?

Promises are a tricky thing. We make all kinds of guarantees. But I'll tell you what's more important is what happens. The average score improvement of our students is about 120 points. But many of our students go up much more, and a score improvement is a very individual thing. An average is pretty meaningless to an individual student who's trying to get a certain score.

And when I say score improvement, I mean from the point they come to us, we give them a released exam, to the test score that they end up with. So the average is 120, and if people don't get that average, we work with them until they do.

The marketing promotional language around that is really not, I don't think material for what we're describing here, performance is what matters, and that's what our students get.

We have all kinds of group programs in schools, many of them in underprivileged neighborhoods that have gotten 180 points. In fact in California, in Southern California we have a program that did just that. So a lot of it is the commitment of the group, and the commitment of the individual for the average score improvement for the cohort.

Not everybody has $800 to spend on a course.

That's true. It is true that $800 is a lot of money, and not everyone can afford it. At Kaplan, we do that a couple of ways. One, we give a lot of scholarships to kids and their parents who are able to pay some of that amount. In the ten, over ten million dollars worth of scholarships.

We also do group programs in schools in underprivileged neighborhoods that are financed by the federal government, or financed by the school for much lower price points, $200.

We also have books and software, our software sells a hundred fifty thousand units a year, and you're talking about 20 bucks.

Now, when you're talking about strategies, tricks, strategies, gimmicks, whatever the word is, those tricks can be taught in a $20 book, in a $20 software, piece of software, or online for free at our Web site. That is not what a student is buying when they buy $800.

Do you think it's fair?

Well, fairness or equity is a, is a tough thing to decide upon, especially sitting where we are. Clearly one could say it's not fair. One could say it's not fair that one child has access to a great public education because she or he lives in a wealthy town that's able to fund all kinds of programs that an underprivileged neighborhood could not fund. Is that fair? Is it fair that some kids go to private schools and some kids can't?

Life has all types of inequities built into it. Test preparation really tries to close those gaps. Now, I believe that more minority kids who are in the cohorts you're describing should have access to test preparation, and we certainly are going to work with local, state, federal officials to help make that available at an affordable cost. At the end of the day, if those kids get access, and their basic skills improve, if their scores improve, and their confidence improves, and they enjoy that achievement, that's a great thing for their education thing going forward. So we're pretty committed to making that happen.

The equity involved in preparing kids for test really revolves around the notion of meritocracy in our society. And to take the last step before the exam and say, "Is this fair or not fair?" really is to miss the overall question, which is how do you sort the winners and the losers in a world that is basically and inherently unfair?

I believe that those scores can be boosted, and I've seen them boosted. And we want to be a part of that as do other people. So, the way it needs to be improved by getting those scores up, and getting the confidence that goes along with raising those scores.

Where did you go to college?


What would happen if Harvard threw out SATs?

I have no way of knowing, and this is pure speculation. Without the SAT, I think you'd have a lot more outcry of favoritism. Alumni connections would be even more important than they are, because there'd be so many students who had similar backgrounds. Just taking one more piece of the puzzle away. And I think that would be a rallying cry for claims of favoritism, or prejudice in the admissions process. And for any group that was undermined in that admissions process against historical realities, I think that's what they'd come out and say. That you took away the objective standard, now it's who you know, it's how you know them, it's what kind of money you can give to the school. All the things that actually were there before the SAT came into existence in the '20s and '30s. Where a place like Harvard was accused of being very racist and separatist against groups. And the SAT was used as a way to break in through those barriers. So I think that's what would happen.

Something I do want to add is, start anew. One of the big issues about the SAT is people think if you can prepare for it, and you can then purchase the preparation, it is inherently unfair. But imagine a world where the SAT was impossible to prepare for. That phychometricians prove that there was no way you could prepare for the test, and you could call it whatever you want. A friend of mine calls it the IMP, the Impregnable Aptitude Test. Couldn't prepare for it.

We used to have a concept like that. So imagine you as a parent had your child go to a room, your son or daughter put their finger in a hole, and out came a number. That was them. That was their ability. Ability versus effort.

Well, we had a concept like that, especially in the '40s and the '50s, and it was called the IQ exam. And people went around testing themselves, because this was going to be, testing their children, this was going to be their inheritability.

Well, over time, that became a reprehensible concept. And in our society, the idea that you can't better yourself, that you were born with a number on your forehead, it runs almost exactly against the American way of life. And certainly the way of our meritocracy.

If you walk into a party and say to someone, "What's your IQ?" they would either laugh at you if they're secure, or walk away insulted, thinking you were obnoxious. Well, that is kind of the flip side of what the SAT would be if it weren't the kind of test that it is. So it's an interesting issue to throw out there. And it goes, right again, to the issue of meritocracy.

But isn't the world asking the question, "What did you get on your SATs?"

But you can do something about it. And it's very important. I don't think anyone thinks that the SAT score is a measure of your innate intelligence. It is not. That is a fallacious concept, and we at Kaplan, and others who are in a position, should be out there making sure people know this is nothing, this score does not have anything to do with your innate intelligence. What it does have to do with is how well you can do on a set of basic skill questions on a certain day. And that's important to the college admissions process. In fact, a test in your history class in your first year represents how well you can think about a set of issues on that day.

So when you're asked about your SAT test score, you might not want to answer because of all of the issues tied up with, with that number. But the fact is, one, you can do something about it, and people know you can. You can raise that score. And two, no one's claiming that it is an intelligence test. It is not. It's not an aptitude test. It is not even an assessment test. They dropped the notion that it meant anything.

What it is, is a set of skills in math and verbal, measured on a certain day, to help admissions officers decide how well you can handle the curriculum in college.

So what we're talking about is the kind of test that measures how much money your dad and mom make?

I don't know the data that you're referencing about the household income and test score improvement. But I do know from my own experience, and from Kaplan's experience, that the two things that--if you had to make a gross generalization--the test measures is how much the girl or boy has read, and how much they read out of school, number one. And number two, how goal-directed they are.

You know, we have so many primary experience with kids from under-privileged neighborhoods that have gotten two, three hundred point increases by working very hard. And, but I think that the general notion that the car their parents drive is an indicator of test score, I would just reject.

Kids who read do better on this test than kids who don't. And we are in a time, because of the proliferation of online media and a hundred channels on cable, where teenagers and young adults, and eight and nine-year-olds do not read enough. And the SAT is very unforgiving for students who do not read.

And more important than a Kaplan test prep course, or a book, or piece of software from us or any of our competitors is for a student to read. And if a parent watching this wants to know what they can do before writing a check to anyone like us, have your child read books.

ETS came out with a study that basically says you guys don't help. How?

The biggest error in that study is that it looked at test scores between coached and uncoached students. And coached students were those that took test preparation from either us, or Princeton Review, or a few other courses. Uncoached students were students who didn't take one of our courses.

Well, when you look at it, those students are, many are receiving coaching in school. In fact, it could be from Kaplan that they're receiving in-school coaching. Yet, the college board and EPS, who authored the study, treated them as uncoached students. So when you look at the comparison, that is obviously a major, major flaw.

30 years ago test preparation wasn't big.

Well, Kaplan is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Is it fair to say that its growth has happened in the last decade?


Why? If it's not just tricks, is the growth of Kaplan basically a sign of the deterioration of the public school?

Is this the softball question you're throwing? Okay, let's to the...the first...test preparation has grown in the last two decades dramatically. And I think there's a couple reasons for that. One, there has been population growth as those two decades have pursued, and that means more competition. More competition means you want to do as well as you can.

Two, you have parents who are much more tuned to the admissions process. Baby boomers, call them what you will, who are much more focused on what it takes to achieve. More sophisticated about the process. The process that their children are going through is almost identical to the process that they went through. That was not true for their parents and them when they went through the process. And so that energy is driving some of this.

Another phenomenon that's an interesting one that I don't think is reported enough is that many large state universities have become better and better schools over this period. And those universities offer an excellent education, and an excellent alternative to a skyrocketing cost of a private education. So if you look at what's going on here in California, Berkeley and UCLA are fantastic education. And they, for an in-state resident, are a fraction of the cost of Stanford.

The SAT is an important part of the process of how you get into Berkeley and UCLA. Well, two decades ago, Berkeley and UCLA were good schools then, but if you look around the country, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, University and Texas, I can go on and on... State schools that have made significant investments with strong economies, to become a great alternative to skyrocketing private education. That means more applicants are needing to get better scores, because it matters if you get into the main campus in your state or not. And that's driving some of this phenomenon as well.

I think it really speaks to, I think a very good story about American higher education, which is the ability of the public university to compete head-on, and head-on and win with private institutions. And certainly, when you look at a consumer benefit, much better value proposition at many state schools that are providing excellent education, and I think there's a component there.

Do you think the "boomers" have an SAT obsession?

I think they have, I think that boomers, I think that baby boomers have a obsession with success, and the SAT for their children is one indicator of that. And I think that our prosperity right now is in part being driven by the incredible energy of this generation of people. So that energy is leading to many great things. One corollary is an anxiety around measurement. An anxiety around "how will my child do?" And clearly there are many boomers who are very anxious about the fact that their children will not do better than they did.

And as rents skyrocket, you read stories about kids returning home to live, an idea that was probably out of the question a generation ago.

So when you see success tied to the ability to afford housing and be successful as an adult, and the intensity of the generation in general, I think you do have a lot of SAT obsession, but it's not an outlay. I think it's consistent with how this group of people are approaching their life, many of which are driving great things for this country.

Did you take a Kaplan course to get into Harvard?

No, I didn't.

What was your score?

I don't answer that on camera.

Claude Steele makes the analogy about the more you rely on it, the more it's like picking a basketball team of free-throw shooters.

Well, I think that, my response to that criticism is no different to the one to the person who says we can't use the SAT because it uses words like regatta. Okay, what else does it use? And it kind of ends there. The SAT is here to stay. That's a very different statement than saying the SAT is going to become, or should become more important in the admissions process. And I think the people that argue against the SAT argue against it at the extreme.

If it becomes more important, we're only going to have free-throw shooters. Well, it shouldn't become more important. In fact, if it's three, it should be three and a half or four. But depending on how valid we think those skills it's measuring based on continued evaluation.

The SAT is our measure of merit.

Well, we are stuck with the responsibility and challenge of sorting two million kids into yes and no at college, on college admission day. That is a tough task that leads to a normal distribution. Most people end up in the middle, with people on either extreme. Any arbiter of that process is going to come under scrutiny. The SAT is an easy target for that arbiter.

There is no regulatory body that oversees the admissions process. There is no room for consumer voice in that process. The scholarship process, which is in itself a whole other, you know, set of complex issues about rewards in society, that also is unregulated. Who gets what money when at what interest rate, with what kind of support. Why are all applications due December 31st? Why does, you know, why are we informed on April 15? Well, the schools decided that. The SAT is no different than that.

Once again, it's an easy target for the notion that at the college admission game, as population increases and there are more kids graduating from high school every year, there are going to be winners and there's going to be losers. No one wants to lose. And when someone loses, it's easy to say it's the SAT that did it to me.

But what I'm trying to make clear is when the SAT, if the SAT, were not there, there'd be something else that led to winners and losers. Because at the end of the day, each school only has so many open slots. And in California, that slot at UC Berkeley, not only because it's one of the best schools in the world, but because it's an incredible value proposition, it's a great education for the dollar, that's a very valuable slot. They're going to have to choose who gets that. The SAT is an easy target for those who don't get it, but without it, something else will indicate who gets in, who doesn't.

So the SAT is not the villain in your opinion?

The SAT is, the SAT is not the villain. If the SAT is used wrong, it can be a villain. But often it is that, and that does happen, but that's an overstated phenomenon. The villain, if there is any, is not giving underprivileged kids access to, to content and ideas that will help improve their proficiency, because one thing the SAT does do is it creates a lot of anxiety, and a lot of performance anxiety in teenagers.

Look, people hate to be measured. And whenever you measure, for whatever reason, it creates anxiety. Now in New York, the fourth grade reading test that was just given has nothing to do with individual achievement, or individual outcomes. Meaning the scores are not relevant to what will happen to the child. They are being used solely to understand how an individual class is doing against the other classes in the school, and how a school is doing against other schools in its district, and how each districts are doing against the system. Yet, it created all kinds of anxiety, because parents from this baby boomer generation are very concerned about achievement worried about how their children would do.

The ETS study says that Kaplan doesn't improve scores, yet they market test preparation tools. They also say they're non-profit, and yet they have a for-profit arm which makes a lot of money selling tests.

The test maker, ETS, the test sponsor College Board, really have two audiences that they're marketing to. The first audience is the user of the test, the university and colleges. They're the buyer of the test as a valid and important measurement tool. And those, that customer is tied up in this whole discussion about equal access, and the role of affirmative action in the admissions process.

It is very important to that buyer, once again, the college or university, that the SAT be seen as something that cannot be prepared for, because if it can, at least all types of questions about equity and availability and just basic fairness. We've addressed those today, but those questions come up. By issuing a study that says test preparation doesn't work, they give a tool to the university or college to combat the notion that the test preparation provides an advantage.

Their other customer is the test taker. And that test taker wants to get the highest score that she or he can. And it's been proven, you know, beyond a doubt in our minds, that test preparation works and works in a big way. In fact, the FTC studied Stanley Kaplan in the late '70s and came out with proof that it did. ETS, for a long time, pooh-poohed the idea of test preparation. But as students, from their own experience, passed along the notion that test preparation works, that Kaplan works, you raise your score, buy a book, buy a piece of software, take a course, you're going to get a higher score. ETS and the College Board could not ignore that, and ignore that market and that opportunity. So they began marketing their own products.

And the way they distinguish is they market books and software, not courses, so they're lower price. But if you look at the promotional language, it's test preparation promotion. "Take our test preparation from the test maker."

They characterize it as familiarization, but you know--

So it's fair to say that they're talking out of both sides of their mouth?

It's fair to say they're talking out of both sides of their mouth. But students benefit by getting higher scores, so that's okay. But it should be on the table.

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