Test-Prep Pioneer Stanley H. Kaplan Dies at 90

When asked what his middle initial stood for, Stanley H. Kaplan routinely said,
When asked what his middle initial stood for, Stanley H. Kaplan routinely said, "Higher scores." The Washington Post bought his firm for $45 million. (Courtesy Of Kaplan Inc.)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stanley H. Kaplan, 90, who founded the nation's first and largest test preparation company and transformed the way students prepare for higher education, died Aug. 23 of a heart ailment at his home in New York.

Mr. Kaplan founded Stanley H. Kaplan Co. as a tutoring business in the basement of his parents' Brooklyn apartment in 1938. He had hoped for a career in medicine but said he was rejected from five New York medical schools because quotas had been filled for the number of Jews they admitted.

The rejections rankled for a lifetime. A fair test, he believed, would allow students to prove their excellence based on merit, rather than privilege. He believed he could help all students even the odds on what was then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

In the process, he created an industry just as the GI Bill after World War II caused college enrollment to boom. The Kaplan company now gets two-thirds of its revenue from other education services, including courses ranging from pre-kindergarten to an online accredited law degree. Its 2008 revenue was $2.3 billion, and 1 million students each year enroll in its courses.

The Stanley H. Kaplan Co. was sold to The Washington Post Co. in 1984 for $45 million. The Post was not his only suitor and Post publisher Katharine Graham was lukewarm about the purchase; but Post financial executive Dick Simmons was enthusiastic, and Post board member Warren G. Buffett said Kaplan reminded him of Rose Blumkin, an irascible, hard-toiling Russian transplant whose discount Furniture Mart was outselling every furniture store in the country when Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway bought it in 1983.

Kaplan's growth transformed The Washington Post Co. from what was primarily a newspaper firm into an education and media company, providing 58 percent of The Post Co.'s revenue last quarter.

The Post Co.'s board chairman, Donald Graham, called Mr. Kaplan "above all, a great teacher and he approached his business that way. He invented an industry, and not a small one. He was a highly principled leader of his company, and a very generous man."

Mr. Kaplan asserted that test training could improve students' SAT scores, a claim that the Federal Trade Commission investigated in 1979 after complaints that the industry was advertising exaggerated results. Mr. Kaplan said, but did not advertise, that students who took his classes could raise their SAT scores by 100 points. The FTC concluded the Kaplan program might raise math and verbal scores, but only by an average of 25 points.

That was enough of a boost to attract hundreds of thousands of students. "Kaplan is like cosmetics," one student told the New York Times. "He sells hope and you feel secure. That's the genius of this guy."

Mr. Kaplan was a pariah in higher education circles, however, as educational leaders insisted no would could study for the SAT. The test, they said, measured people's innate ability to learn, not their actual learning, so studying was worthless.

"Kaplan was puzzled. In Flatbush you always studied for tests," journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2001 New Yorker profile of Mr. Kaplan.

Gladwell added that Mr. Kaplan "changed the rules of the game . . . [and] undermined the use of aptitude tests as social engineering." Mr. Kaplan "once determined that the testmakers were fond of geometric problems involving the Pythagorean theorem." So he had his teachers pass on a phrase that still sticks in the heads of Kaplan students generations later -- "boo, boo, boo, square root of two" -- "to help them remember how the Pythagorean formula applies to an isosceles right triangle," Gladwell wrote.

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