By Thomas Fields-Meyer
December 20, 1999 12:00 PM

When Nancy Kaplan brought would-be boyfriends home to her family in Brooklyn as a teenager, her father always had the same greeting. “Hello,” he would say. “What did you get on your SAT?” Recalls Nancy, now 47: “They were flabbergasted.”

Not that a low score would have ruled out a prospect. If ever there was a believer that test results can be improved, it’s Stanley Kaplan, 80, who started his test-preparation business ‘in a makeshift classroom and built it into a company that now boasts more than 1,000 outlets and annual revenues near $270 million. Before selling the franchise 15 years ago, Kaplan had helped hundreds of thousands of students up their scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test and on an assortment of graduate admission tests. “He has dramatically improved American education,” says Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who worked for Kaplan as a teenager. “He says, ‘It’s important to have these skills, and if you work hard, you can gain them.’ ”

Born in 1919 to Jewish immigrant parents, Stanley had already found his niche at 7. “When my friends were playing doctor, I was playing teacher,” says Kaplan, who would pay friends a nickel to let him offer an hour’s help in math. When administrators at his Brooklyn high school learned he’d been helping classmates study for the New York State Regents Exams, they offered him 25 cents an hour for his tutoring. “It was like being the baseball player playing in the sandlots,” says Kaplan, “and someone says, ‘Hey, do you want to play for real?’ ”

Scoring high himself on the Regents, he attended New York’s City College and finished his undergraduate studies in just three years. Rejected by medical school in 1938, he started a business tutoring elementary and high school kids as well as teaching immigrants how to read. He was helping a high school girl with her algebra when she showed him a booklet on what was then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which colleges began to use widely only after World War II. “I fell in love with the SAT,” he recalls. “I became entranced by the cleverness of it.”

In 1946, Kaplan taught his first preparatory class, charging $135 for 16 sessions. He earned enough to put his sister Rosalie through the University of Wisconsin, where she met Rita Gwirtzman, a bright fellow Brooklynite she fixed up with Stanley. They married in 1949 and, besides Nancy, have a daughter Susan, 48. (A son, Paul, died in 1991.)

With Rita and the children helping—”His business was our life,” says Susan—the tutoring enterprise grew from the basement of their home to a Brooklyn office, where Kaplan entertained classes with his command of SAT vocabulary words. “I’d tell them, ‘Go home to your mother and tell her you’re impecunious, your allowance is paltry, and you want an augmentation,” he says.

By 1975, Kaplan was prepping 70,000 students annually in 75 centers but not getting high marks from the testing industry, which viewed his test stratagems as so much snake oil. “The prevailing view was that the SAT was uncoachable,” says Don Powers, a research scientist with the Educational Testing Service. But when the Federal Trade Commission investigated Kaplan and several competitors in 1979, it found that the courses did boost scores. Though the exam is now criticized as unfair to students who can’t afford prep courses, Kaplan thinks the problem is avoidable. “Is it fair for the wealthy to go to better hospitals?” he asks. “You get better things in life. You can’t fight that.”

Certainly the test was kind to Kaplan, who sold his empire to the Washington Post Co. in late 1984 for a reported $33 million. Much of that has gone to the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, which supports cultural, educational and health programs. And Kaplan still loves meeting people who’ve taken his courses. “Everyone asks, ‘Are you the Stanley Kaplan?’ ” he says. ” ‘You helped me so much.’ ”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Jennifer Frey in New York City