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Teaching the test is still teaching.
Illustration by Jonathan Weiner
“What did you get for No. 3?” Six high school students are hanging out in the hallway at the Kaplan Educational Center in Foggy Bottom, comparing exams and griping about their scores. They munch chips and chug sodas procured from a nearby snack machine. “Root two? Dude!” At a table down the hall, a girl lifts her head from a textbook in annoyance.
I’m here not to prepare for a test myself but to become a test-prep teacher. A week earlier, I gave a five-minute audition, in which I taught fellow Kaplan hopefuls how to order a beer in German. On the basis of my performance, I was selected to become an instructor—a distinction I shared with all seven other candidates that night.
On a dry-erase board in the lobby is a quotation, ascribed to Jean de la Fontaine: “In this world we must help one another…” Are the folks at Kaplan suggesting that they’re engaged in philanthropy?
Kaplan is the country’s largest test-preparation company, with more than $350 million in revenue in 2000; the runner-up, Princeton Review, earned nearly $200 million. The test-preparation industry now offers classes for standardized tests from grade school through adult education—not just the big-name tests they put on buses and billboards (SAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, MCAT) but medical- and dental-licensing exams (NCLEX, USMLE, DAT) and English-proficiency tests for nonnative speakers (TOEFL). If you can answer it with a No. 2 pencil, Kaplan has a class for it.
And they have classes for teaching the classes. My trainer, Jeremy, is a cheerful blond first-year med student, fresh out of college. Even though we have each successfully auditioned, he wants us to put on five-minute presentations about ourselves. We should include our own personal encounter with a standardized test: how we prepared, how we scored, what we thought about the experience.
I confess to the group that to prepare for my own MCAT, I took a class with the Princeton Review. This gets a healthy laugh, but not from Jeremy. “I’m glad you told me that,” he begins, looking me directly in the eye. “I really feel that full disclosure is the best policy here. And I’m glad you feel comfortable enough with the group to admit something like that in front of all of us.” Turning to the rest of the class, he adds, “I hope everyone is as brave as Cameron when it comes to confessing these things. Because we don’t hold it against you; I want you to know that.”
Then we move into the meat of the session. A Kaplan teacher, Jeremy explains, plays four roles: (1) Kaplan Representative, (2) Mentor, (3) Presenter, and (4) Expert. I don’t raise my hand to ask if Kaplan Inc. has ranked these roles in order of importance.
Most of us volunteer to teach verbal reasoning, guessing that it will be easy. But one of my classmates shies away. When he took Kaplan verbal prep for the MCAT, he explains, “I thought it was bullshit.”
Jeremy responds quickly: “When you start teaching, you can’t ever say that again.” I make a joke about brainwashing, and he retorts, “It’s not brainwashing. It’s just—they’re paying you.”
And they’re paying you to teach the Kaplan technique, not to share your own methods or opinions. “What is the MCAT a test of?” Jeremy asks. “Critical thinking. You have to get them to think in a new way.”
Though Kaplan’s classes are called “review” classes and the students preparing for the MCAT have had about 16 years of formal education, the company teaches from the ground up. Critical analysis, logical reasoning, and keeping track of the time are imparted as if the students had never encountered them before. The positive notion of knowing the right answer is turned on its head: In Kaplan’s
multiple-choice world, it’s just as important to identify and categorize the wrong answers.
We cover lesson planning and the art of eliminating the word “um” from extemporaneous speech. “I still say it sometimes,” Jeremy consoles us. “If you have an urge to say ‘um,’ just pause instead.”
From there we segue into the necessity of enthusiasm. “It’s really important to stress how great Kaplan is in front of your class,” Jeremy says. “You have to be really gung-ho about Kaplan—not just because it’s your job, and they’re paying you, but…” For the first time, Jeremy is momentarily at a loss. “It’s your societal obligation,” he concludes. “And it’s your obligation to us.”
A sense of societal obligation is what motivated Stanley Kaplan to start his company. Kaplan had been rejected from medical school in 1947, before the MCAT was created, and he saw standardized tests as leveling the playing field for working-class kids like himself. When he opened centers in D.C. and other parts of the country, Kaplan impressed upon employees his respect for the SAT, an attitude that has survived and trickled down to my D.C. classroom.
When I took my MCAT classes from the Princeton Review, there was no such love of standardized tests involved. The Princeton Review was founded to undermine the SAT—a “scam,” founder John Katzman has called the test, which “has never measured anything”—and its approach is antagonistic. Teachers kept a crafty air, repeating terms such as “crack open” and “defeat” over and over. My verbal-reasoning instructor revealed test-taking tips with conspiratorial flourishes; one day, he struck a pose and announced, “If you obey the next sentence I say exactly, I guarantee that your score will go up five percentile points.”
Some of the test-cracking tips were clever: Avoid any answer that implies a doctor or scientist is stubborn or wrong-headed; distrust any answer that dabbles in the debate between religion and science. But memorizing and applying a series of rules is only a partial solution. That’s because—you might want to sit down for this—a well-written standardized test actually does measure something: It measures the ability to take tests.
This is usually part of the indictment against standardized testing: Tests don’t account for creativity or depth of knowledge, only for the narrow task at hand. So what? That narrow task is what adolescents do in school, day after day. Test-taking means being able to sit still, follow directions, and temporarily care about abstruse information—which are also, as it happens, the basic requirements for most white-collar careers. Hardly anyone needs to know by memory the date of the Second Battle of Bull Run, or the Fahrenheit-Celsius conversion formula. The point is to know them for the test.
Despite their different ideologies, Kaplan and the Princeton Review do the same thing: They take those implicit lessons and make them explicit. Managing the clock, understanding what the test’s authors want—your social studies teachers demand these things, too. They just don’t tell you so before you get graded.
My first class as a Kaplan teacher is Verbal Reasoning. It’s 6:45 p.m. on a Tuesday in February, and I’m standing in front of my very own dry-erase board in the Kaplan Center at White Flint Mall, waiting for my very own students to arrive. They enter in twos and threes, joking with each other and casting hesitant glances my way. Most of them seem bright, eager, and ready to learn. I’ve been dreading the part where I initiate class participation, but it goes surprisingly well. Students raise their hands, speak respectfully, and attend to my responses.
It’s unnerving, in fact, how seriously some Kaplan students take their test preparation. There are several students—yes, most of them seated in the front row—who write down every comment I utter as though it is gospel. My training has worked; I am an Expert.
When I look down at my lesson book, though, I don’t feel as if I quite deserve the adulation. The secrets I’m imparting seem dangerously simple: Do the easy passages first; eliminate wrong answers before choosing the right one; bring a stopwatch to the test with you.
Eventually, there are hairy moments. We read three passages of increasing difficulty, and after each passage, we answer six questions. At first, when a student calls out the wrong answer, I explain why it is wrong, and the student accepts my explanation. We nod our heads and move on.
As the class drags on, though, the questions get harder, and the wrong answers begin to resemble the right answers more closely. After all, to separate the smart from the supersmart, test makers have to write wrong answers that will tempt a bright student but not a brilliant one. Students begin to trust my explanations less and less. This is where I get in trouble.
“But it says right there, in the second sentence, that Jane Austen is a social novelist!” protests a woman in the front row. “That’s answer A!” I see other students nodding their heads. Suddenly, the room feels smaller than it did an hour ago.
“Well, yes, that’s true, but it also says that there was a shift from the social novel to the political novel,” I counter. “And that’s really the main idea of the passage.” This is greeted with frowns.
“But the other answer works, too,” says a second student, a young man in the back row. “I mean, it’s true, too. So how are you supposed to know which is the right one?” I tell the group—by now the classroom feels the size of a mop closet—that its job is not just to pick the answer that is right; it is to pick the answer that is more right.
General scoffing ensues. The class is now in full revolt. I launch a pre-emptive strike. “I know that it seems like both answers are right,” I say. “You have to think about it from the perspective of the person who wrote the test. What answer would the average person go for? What would the ordinary Joe”—I bite my tongue before spitting out the Princeton Review’s patented “Joe
Bloggs”—”choose as the answer?”
They’re not going for it. My panicked brain dips into its emergency grab bag and comes up with “active reading.” This concept got a lot of buzz during my teacher training. It was also strongly emphasized in my Princeton Review class, except they called it “reading for structure.”
Jeremy explained active reading like this: “When you read for pleasure, you want to remember what you’ve read. But when you read an MCAT passage, you want to forget it as soon as you’re done with it….To be an active reader, you have to be comfortable with getting the gist of the passage but no more.”
“Ignore the details,” I hear myself saying. “Look at the big picture. If you read actively, as we’ve talked about, the structure of the passage will become clear. And then it will be obvious what the main idea is.”
Helping bright, curious students improve their test-taking skills is largely a process of dumbing them down. Keep the brightness, I tell them, but lose the curiosity. Shut down the inquisitive part of your mind, the part that ponders shades of gray. Try to ignore the persistent voice that says, Well, if you look at it from this perspective… Get rid of exactly those qualities that colleges and graduate schools are supposed to value most. Lose them just long enough to do well on this test.
At 9, the class ends, and after several more minutes of answering questions, I shoulder my bag. I am exhausted, and it isn’t until I get out the door of the Kaplan Center that I remember I am deep in White Flint, next door to Dave & Buster’s. As I step onto the down escalator, the D&B doorman gives me a nod.
For now, this branch of education is purely retail. High schools and colleges may offer guidance and career counseling, but they don’t see test prep as part of their educational mission. So students who want help reaching the first rungs of the ladder of success have to look to the private sector. As long as that’s the case, Kaplan and the Princeton Review will continue to do a brisk business. And despite lingering feelings of guilt, I will continue to take the money of students—or, more likely, their parents—who have no alternative but to pay for private test prep.
Most Kaplan students, even the most attentive and well-behaved ones, sense that there’s something askew in this arrangement. One evening, while I am dutifully erasing my dry-erase board, a student comes up to me and asks how I prepared for the MCAT. When I tell him that I took a test-prep class myself, an expression of relief washes over his face. “That makes me feel better,” he says. “Now I feel like I’m not being scammed.” CP