The Independent School Entrance Exam, aka the ISEE, and the SSAT, are, perhaps, two of the most difficult standardized tests on the market right now. By design, the ISEE and SSAT assess a student’s skills well above grade level. Unfortunately, many families approach ISEE or SSAT testing as an event that happens during the fall season as part of the admissions process, thus beginning ISEE preparation or SSAT preparation with their children only a few months before the test, which generally leads to greater stress for everyone involved. Instead, it is best to approach the ISEE or SSAT from a different perspective.
We see the ISEE and SSAT as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on academic strengths and areas for growth. We thoughtfully plan instruction to target an individual student’s needs. Starting early allows us to leverage ISEE preparation or SSAT preparation as an authentic and motivating opportunity to help a student get in great shape for the transition into a rigorous independent day school or boarding school.
The ISEE is a product of the Educational Records Bureau (ERB), a global not-for-profit organization providing admissions and achievement assessment, as well as instructional services for preschool through 12th grade students. The ERB is also the publisher of the CTP-5 grade level achievement tests used by many independent schools. There are three versions of the ISEE test:
- Lower Level (LL) for students applying for admissions to grades 5 and 6. The standards assessed on the Lower Level ISEE cover English and math instruction through grade 6 and into grade 7.
- Middle Level (ML) for students applying for admissions to grades 7 and 8. The standards assessed on the Middle Level ISEE cover English and math instruction through grade 8 and into grade 9.
- Upper level (UL) for students applying for admissions to grades 9 through 12. The standards assessed on the Upper Level cover English and math instruction through grade 11 and into grade 12.
The math content at all three levels is based upon the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards. Included on the tests are: Numbers and Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis, Probability, and Problem Solving. There is a Mathematics Achievement section comprised of multiple-choice skill-based questions and a Quantitative Reasoning section comprised of multiple-choice word problems. Calculators are not permitted.
The English content on each assessment is informed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) standards. The Verbal Reasoning section is comprised of synonyms, single word response items, and phrase response (or paired response) items. The Reading Comprehension section is comprised of items targeting Main Idea, Supporting Ideas, Inferential Comprehension, Vocabulary, Organization/Logic, and Tone/Style/Figurative Language. There is also a 30-minute, on-the-spot essay based on a given prompt. It’s expected that students will write a thoughtful, well-constructed 5-paragraph essay that includes a strong hook to lure the reader into the essay, a compelling thesis statement, solid topic sentences at the beginning of each body paragraph, and a terrific conclusion.
The SSAT, published by The Enrollment Management Association, is similarly leveled and informed by NCTM standards. The elementary level test is used for admissions to grades 4 and 5. The middle level test is used for admissions to grades 6-8. And the upper level test is used for admissions to grades 9-12.
Unlike most other standardized tests for which our students prepare–New York State testing, the CTPs, Stanford Achievement Tests, the SAT or the ACT–the ISEE, like the SSAT, is specifically designed as an above-grade level measure. While other assessments measure grade level achievement, the ISEE and SSAT require students to demonstrate proficiency beyond what they have learned in the classroom.
Therefore, our most successful students prepare anywhere from 45 to 90 hours for this test, depending on their baseline scores and specific needs. ISEE preparation or SSAT preparation is best planned as a slow and steady effort. We typically get started almost a full year ahead of when students will officially test, which means we’re usually starting in January or February with an eye toward November, December, or January testing. The demands of the math sections are particularly intense, so we recommend starting with accelerated math instruction as early as 3rd grade if a family is considering a fifth grade or middle school transition. We then transition into more formal preparation by January of the 4th grade school year with an eye toward December testing as a 5th grader. For public school students, this windup often includes preparation for 3rd and 4th grade state testing since mastery of these grade level standards is a prerequisite for successful performance on the ISEE or SSAT. Test-taking strategies are explicitly instructed, but there is no shortcut for the sheer volume of content that needs to be taught to get students to perform above grade level.
There are many variables to consider regarding the overall admissions strategy for any student applying to a competitive independent or boarding school. Whichever route you take, test preparation is an important part despite the test-optional shifts we’ve seen, so it’s best to develop a plan early and to include your children directly in the process so that they can take ownership for it. When we partner with families, we discuss the value of SSAT or ISEE preparation as an investment in a successful start to middle or high school. This perspective creates a more meaningful experience and helps students, parents, and teachers better measure the impact of test preparation. The more comfortable and confident the student is going in to the test, the more successful the results tend to be.By Brad Hoffman, M.S.Ed.
Board Certified Educational Planner and Learning Specialist
My Learning Springboard, Inc.