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NCLB Outrages

Tyranny of the test: One year as a Kaplan coach in the public schools

NOTE: The complete article is available online to subscribers. Among other things, it details the pernicious relationship between Kaplan and NCLB. It is worth the price of the magazine.

by By Jeremy Miller

. . .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. . . .

Thus, failing students become trapped in a foundering system, and the schools where students land en masse are left to carry out the test-heavy requirements of NCLB. For the New York schools “in need of improvement,” this means preparing students—many of whom are utterly lacking in basic academic skills and subject knowledge—to pass a battery of standardized exams. Toward this end, it also means paying money to outside entities (often private companies such as Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and Newton Learning) up to $2,000 per student for courses focused not on improving content knowledge or on intensive educational counseling but on strategies for a “particular testing task.” (The total annual government expenditure per student in New York City is $15,000.)

The failure of schools serving low-income students has been a windfall for the testing industry. Title I funds earmarked for test tutoring increased by 45 percent during the first four years of NCLB, from $1.75 billion in 2001 to $2.55 billion in 2005. With the ever growing stream of funding flowing through the nation’s schools, the number of supplemental-service providers nationwide has exploded. In New York City, the number of providers approved by the state’s department of education jumped from forty-seven in 2002–2003, the first full school year of NCLB, to 202 today. To capitalize on these new revenue opportunities, Kaplan has acquired Achieva, a provider of online course materials to schools, and SpellRead, a national “reading-intervention” company. In 2003, Kaplan hired former N.Y.C. Chancellor of Education Harold Levy as an executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2006 relocated its headquarters for Kaplan K12, the division of the company that works in schools, from Midtown Manhattan to luxury offices downtown. According to Crain’s, the company made the move “to be closer to the New York City Department of Education.”. . . .

Jeremy Miller is a writer and high school science teacher living in Denver.

— By Jeremy Miller


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