Thank you for believing in us, Stanley Kaplan

“I have to let you know; I’m not a very good standardized test taker.”

If you’ve ever taught a test preparation class, you’ve heard this introduction-slash-disclaimer multiple times as students have entered your classroom for the first time. If you’re reading this space to learn how to become a better standardized test taker, you may have uttered these words to yourself recently. In a society that becomes more quantitatively-oriented by the day (as evidence, someone somewhere can give you a percentage by which that quantitative orientation increases day by day), standardized tests are a major determinant in the academic and professional opportunities available to those who seek them. The high stakes nature of those exams builds stress, and that stress more often than not snowballs, bringing down a student’s performance level and creating additional stress on the next standardized test.

“I didn’t do well on the entrance tests for private high schools, so I was nervous for the PSAT, and that didn’t help. They let me in to college in spite of my SAT score, and I thought I had dodged the bullet, but then came the GRE, the LSAT, the GMAT, the Series 7, the CFA. I think you should know…I’m just not a good standardized test taker.”

And so it was. The tests would grow in importance with each one a student took, and you either had it or you didn’t. Standardized tests measure ability more than they do knowledge. You can’t study for them, the conventional wisdom (and test design) dictated; we’ll determine your potential based on these tests. You’re either good at them, or you’re not.

“You’re not a good standardized test taker. Yet.”

Enter Stanley Kaplan, who had a different mantra.

These tests are beatable, he thought. The very nature of the exams — they’re standardized — means that the questions have to be asked in standard ways. If you are aware of those setups, the pitfalls they create, the ways to save time, and, ultimately, the ways to increase your confidence, you can learn to be a good test taker. Stanley Kaplan sought to build opportunities for those who were capable but didn’t quite have the knack for the arguably-arbitrary way in which we measure that capability.

And he was cast as an educational paraiah. A cheater at worst, opportunist at best, seeking to discredit the sacred institution of the standardized test. Never mind that the tests themselves may be culturally or socioeconomically biased, or that students who were discouraged at an early age would have precious few opportunities to rebuild that lost confidence. Never mind that education as an ideal suggests that anyone should be able to achieve greater results and develop better skills through hard work and ingenuity. Kaplan bucked the system, and the system pushed back.

The very ingenuity that allowed Kaplan to deconstruct those standardized tests also helped him to build an empire and an industry. He sold his Kaplan test preparation company to the Washington Post Company for $45 million back in 1984, and the Kaplan division — now diversified in to an array of academic services — earned over $2 billion in 2008. More importantly, Kaplan’s legacy includes millions of students who were able to overcome the notion that they were “not good test takers”, because Kaplan believed (correctly) that anyone can develop the necessary skills to succeed on these tests. These alumni of Kaplan’s programs, and beneficiaries of the industry that he spawned, are now doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and, yes, teachers, in many cases because Stanley Kaplan believed they could be.

Mr. Kaplan died on Sunday at the age of 90, but his industry and legacy will live on in the achievements of students around the world who seek to better their performance on standardized tests and create opportunities to, like Kaplan did before them, change the world.