Article — From the September 2008 issue

Tyranny of the Test

One year as a Kaplan coach in the public schools

A bell sounds, and students tumble out of rooms and into the gray corridors of George Washington High School. Eight a.m. lethargy has given way to the Brownian motion of the day’s first passing period. A tall boy beside me wraps his arms around a small, pretty girl, backpack and all, picking her up from behind and twirling her roughly. The girl tucks in her feet, tilts back her head, and shrieks giddily, “Yo, who the fuck is this? Who the fuck is grabbin’ me?” A male teacher with a buzz cut and the build of a wrestler claps sharply. “Enough. Second period. Move.” The boy drops the girl, and the two bounce away, laughing down the hall.

I am here because the High School for Health Careers and Sciences, one of several small schools in what was once a single large high school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, has purchased Kaplan’s SAT Advantage program, an abbreviated version of the SAT prep course offered by the testing company at any of its 150 centers nationwide. (“Higher test scores guaranteed or your money back.”) As one of Kaplan’s roving “coaches,” I will spend the day helping math and English teachers kick off the test-taking course by modeling the “Kaplan method” for their classes. Depending on the number of students it serves, a Kaplan program like this can cost a school well into the tens of thousands of dollars. For my efforts each day, which cannot exceed six hours of instruction, I will receive a fee of $295. At this rate, a full school year’s pay would exceed a starting teacher’s salary by more than $10,000.

I glance down at the schedule that Kaplan’s “implementation” team emailed me a few days before. “8:55, Semidey. Room 320.” Disorientation is an unavoidable part of the job. In general, I don’t know the physical layout of the schools I parachute into. I don’t know whether Semidey is a Mr. or a Ms. I don’t know this teacher’s students or whether he or she already uses some kind of test-prep curriculum in the classroom. I don’t even know how “Semidey” is pronounced. Although Kaplan’s assignment sheets include school contact numbers, coaches are instructed not to call ahead; if we cannot resist this urge, we have been told not to expect busy teachers to talk to us. Rather, Kaplan coaches are taught to handle the strangeness of each new workplace by falling back on their highly scripted lessons and by quickly identifying school faculty as one of several possible archetypes; e.g., whether they are “trailblazers” within their schools or dreaded “saboteurs.”[1]

[1] Kaplan’s handbook for coaches suggests that saboteurs be dealt with in a counterintuitive, Sun Tzu-esque way: by keeping them “on the inside where they can be watched rather than on the outside where they can cause trouble without it being detected until their effects are felt.”

Inside room 320 a young woman with long dark hair and olive skin is studying papers spread across a long science-demonstration table. Definitely Ms. Semidey. The room looks just big enough to seat fifteen comfortably but includes chairs for twenty-five or thirty, with desks facing one another in configurations of four or five, filling up almost all the floor space. I still have a few moments before the bell, so I walk down the hall to fill my water bottle at the drinking fountain. No water comes out.

I pause in the hallway at a bulletin board fringed with red-white-and-blue bunting and featuring a picture of an exploding ship. The vessel is the U.S.S. Maine, and tiny crewmembers are being thrown hither and yon by the blast. Of the several essays stapled around this image, the top grade has been awarded to a paper inscribed in blunt pencil by a student named Zeeshan Pervaiz. In what is otherwise a sober reflection on the Spanish-American War, one of Zeeshan’s paragraphs, focusing on the media, strikes a more strident tone. “The practice was called ‘yellow journalism.’ It was called yellow journalism because the materials used to make the newspaper were basically garbage and the odds of it being true were the odds of the Knicks going to the playoffs: bullshit.” His history teacher has written along the margin in red ink: “Avoid expletives. Also, the stories had an element of truth.”

I return to Ms. Semidey’s class, my water bottle empty. Most of the students have filed in but few have found their seats. The student population of Health Careers is 90 percent Hispanic and 8 percent black, and the twenty-five students milling about fairly accurately reflect these proportions. “Ms. Seh-MY-dee?” I say softly, trying to get her attention, sure that I’ve butchered the name. She looks up from her papers, startled. She smiles. She is very pretty, in her mid- twenties, with large brown eyes and full lips colored in bright red.

“Yes. It’s Seh-meh-DAY.” Introducing myself, I say that I’m from Kaplan and here to “demo” the first lesson from the SAT materials. “No,” she says emphatically. The smile has faded. She explains that she is supposed to be observed by the assistant principal this period, that the observation is part of her ongoing certification. I look down stupidly at my schedule.

I understand her anxiety. Just a few years earlier, I was a rookie teacher in a New York City public school, struggling to manage my classes while working toward a teaching license. I also know that many teachers equate the presence of test-prep coaches like me with the more insidious aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. Because Health Careers has been able to meet certain testing benchmarks, it hasn’t been required under the law to purchase test-tutoring services from outside providers like Kaplan. But nearly 90 percent of its student body falls below the federal poverty level, and the school’s principal likely decided to use a chunk of Health Careers’ NCLB low-income-schools funding to pay for our test-prep materials.[2] (Kaplan’s SAT program is one of an array of test-prep courses that the company is contracted to “deliver” in schools nationwide. In New York City, Kaplan provides NCLB- mandated tutoring for the high school Regents exams and the subject exams administered to students in the third through eighth grades.) Many educators argue that the gains from prep courses are negligible and the programs themselves ultimately harmful, since they drain precious funds and class time. A recent Chicago Public Schools study examining student performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills found “little difference between tutored students and those who were eligible but did not receive tutoring.” The price tag for supplemental tutoring in Chicago, which 60,000 students received in the 2004–2005 school year: $50 million.[3] Teachers also are aware that Kaplan’s presence will continue to be felt long after its coaches have moved on: completion of the thirty-six-lesson SAT Advantage program, which includes three abbreviated tests and one full-length practice exam, requires a full forty hours of instruction time.

[2] And to say there is room for academic improvement at the school is a vast understatement. Only 58 percent of its students graduate in four years. Of all graduates, 41 percent leave with a full “Regents diploma,” which is conferred if a student scores 65 percent or higher on five subject-proficiency exams. A mere 3 percent of Health Careers’ students graduate with an “advanced” diploma, which can be earned if they take three additional Regents exams and an increased credit load. The state average is 36 percent.
[3] When I emailed my Kaplan supervisor, Katy Shannon, to find out if the company had any stats showing the effectiveness of its test-prep work in schools, she said that they did have someone working to collect that data but couldn’t show me anything at that time. “It is difficult to do,” she wrote, “because we sell the program to a school and it is up to them to maintain fidelity, which doesn’t always happen, therefore that data tends to be unreliable.”

I tell Ms. Semidey I can teach the class tomorrow, since I’m scheduled to be in the school for two days. A little smile returns to her lips. “I’ve worked my ass off on this lesson,” she says. As I turn to leave, I am met by a small, perky woman. “Are you Jeremy?” she asks. It is the assistant principal, Ms. Campeas. She listens as I explain the conflict and the proposed resolution. “No,” she says. “This is Kaplan day. We will do the observation another day.” She calls Ms. Semidey over and firmly tells her the same.

By the time Ms. Campeas has issued her decree, class has been in session for five minutes. I quickly distribute Kaplan workbooks to the students. I toss one Frisbee-style to a student whose corner desk is so thoroughly barricaded I cannot reach him. With a little sideways lurch, I wriggle between the groups of desks into the small hollow that seems to be the room’s dramatic center point. Students observe me quizzically (though some must look over their shoulders or turn around completely to do so). One rangy boy slumped heavily in his chair notices the Kaplan logo on the book, covers his face with long-fingered hands, and announces, “Not this again. Not Kaplan. I hate this shit.” Ms. Semidey stands between the science table and the chalkboard at the front of the room, a pair of scissors gripped tightly in her hand. Her Kaplan teacher’s manual lies unopened on the table before her.

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is a writer and high school science teacher living in Denver

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October 2018