Web Exclusives:Features

January 30, 2002:
Prepping for college
John Katzman '81 talks about his SAT tutoring company, Princeton Review

By Richard Atcheson '56

The 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 public.

What follows is part of the conversation that took place. Tell me about starting The Princeton Review.

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 there.

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 be.

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 test.

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 students.