30, 2002: Prepping
'81 talks about his SAT tutoring company, Princeton Review
By Richard Atcheson
headquarters of The Princeton Review occupy most of a four-story
art deco building on the southeast corner of 84th Street and Broadway,
in Manhattan, and you couldn't miss it if you tried. The striking
façade - huge sparkling windows framed in delicate gray-black
- is festooned on both street sides with vertical banners three
stories high that flutter and billow in the breeze, proclaiming
"The Princeton Review" in black on white. The Review began
in 1981 as a coaching class for college-bound kids who wanted to
do well on their SATs, and its reputation for effectiveness spread
rapidly across the country.
On the day I went to
interview John Katzman '81, who founded the Review the year after
he graduated Princeton with a degree in architecture, the elevator
was out, so I climbed the stairs to the second floor reception area.
This was a large space filled with picnic tables under umbrellas.
Serious-looking people of all ages were going about in jeans and
T-shirts. Notices posted for the staff advertised such things as
massage on Thursdays and margaritas on Fridays.
Katzman, a boyish 41,
escorted me to his vast, sun-flooded corner office, where we talked
about his company, which in 20 years had reshaped the nature and
form of, and assumptions about, college testing, and about American
education in general. A month earlier, he had taken his company
What follows is part
of the conversation that took place. Tell me about starting The
I'd been spending time
at Princeton tutoring kids for the SAT, and it was fun. After college
I was living with my folks in New York City, and I convinced Hunter
College to host my classes, and I hired other recent Princeton graduates
to teach. Parents are willing to pay, and the kids are motivated.
The name, incidentally,
wasn't a reference to the university at that time; it was a reference
to the Educational Testing Service (ETS). They were known at that
time as "Princeton" because they had a mailing address
What do the testing
folks think of you?
We have a strained relationship.
At the time, the College Board and ETS presented the SAT as an intelligence
test. It is, in fact, an outgrowth of the army's Alpha-IQ test.
And it was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The feeling I
got very quickly when I was tutoring is that it wasn't intelligence
that was being measured, it was basic math and verbal skills, and
a certain amount of game playing. Good test takers take their time
on easy questions, don't make careless mistakes. And if they are
on a tough question and they don't understand it, they just move
on, not having wasted a lot of time.
If you look at the kids
who apply to Princeton, the difference between the 1500 scores and
the 1300 scores has nothing to do with intelligence. These are learned
skills, they are just not the skills that colleges think they are
measuring or that the kids think are being measured. When I first
made that observation, it didn't sit well with the testing companies.
They took a long time to finally admit that the SAT didn't measure
intelligence, and it was 14 years after we started that they finally
changed the name of the test to Scholastic Assessment Test. Then
we pointed out that that was redundant and probably inappropriate.
Then they just changed it to the initials, so it doesn't stand for
anything anymore. Tell me about the company.
Over time the company
has changed a great deal. At this point there are three divisions.
The first one, Test Prep, works with students preparing for college
and graduate school admissions tests. The second, Admissions Services,
works with half the students going to college and graduate school
every year, through every part of the admissions process, via its
books, magazines, and websites. We survey up to 50,000 college kids
every year and ask them, "How do you like it there? What works
and what doesn't work about your school? What are your professors
like? What are your classmates like?" And our findings make
the national news.
We publish all the bestselling
guides to colleges and grad schools. We put all our content online,
so you can use our web site to find out about different colleges.
Where do the kids drink a lot? Where do they work harder? Then you
can track the admissions process, you can keep track of the schools
you are considering and the deadlines coming up. Finally, you can
actually apply electronically with us, or fill out applications
electronically. So you pull up an application to a college and it
comes up pre-calculated with your answer to earlier applications
you've filled out. So you can tweak your answers. The you can either
print it out and mail it, or just send it electronically. It's all
free to students. The colleges pay us to market to those kids, to
digitize their applications and to target the applicants.
The third division,
K-12 Services, is our newest, about three years old. Over the past
six years virtually every state has created state-wide tests for
students from third grade to high school. These tests can have serious
consequences for kids. If you don't do well you might have to go
to summer school every year, you might not get a diploma. But these
tests are really aimed at the schools themselves - which are good,
which are bad. The state ranks the schools, and this impacts on
merit pay for teachers and tenure for principals. If your kids do
well in New York, you get a $15,000 bonus, and if they do poorly,
you're fired. So that's a sea change in education.
Now, under President
Bush's education bill, the states will be required to test every
year, grades three to eight, math and English. We set up this division
to help schools deal with tests in smart ways. If we can help schools,
very inexpensively - at $5 to $8 a student - to align their curricula
to the state tests, monitor their kids through the years so we can
see who's having trouble before it's a problem, and counsel the
teachers on how to deal with these tests constructively, we can
improve the schools and at the same time improve the scores.
What about your competitors?
The Washington Post
has a division - Kaplan - that is a fierce competitor on the Test
Prep side. On the Admissions Services side, our competitor in many
ways is the College Board itself, which has a for-profit division.
It impacts on Admission Services, it matches kids and colleges in
a market where they can meet each other. In K-12 Services, that
world is just forming, so it's hard to say who the competitors will
The fact that we have
competitors is the main reason that we went public a month ago.
We feel that there are some great opportunities here, and they require
some cash and currency. But it was a long process.
You have been criticized
for teaching to the tests.
We teach what's on the
test. When we're teaching kids for the MCAT, the medical school
test, that's a test of physics, biology, and chemistry, and we teach
physics, biology, and chemistry. And nobody complains. It's real
learning. When we're preparing kids for the SAT, if you start very
low we're teaching English and math. We will cover subjects you
learned in fourth grade. But if you're starting at 600 in math we're
teaching you very little math. We're teaching you how to take the
Tests like the Advanced
Placement test, which are really good, deep tests, actually have
created advanced placement courses in most every high school which
are good, deep courses. Again, no one complains. On the other hand,
most of those state tests are not really ready for prime time. They
are measuring very shallow learning, and teaching for these tests
is generally not making schools better. We will become a nation
of better test takers, but not necessarily a nation of better educated