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The transition to high school is a challenging time for students. This is even more the case for students who want to attend top private high schools, since these have complicated application processes. Just like colleges, these high schools ask students to take standardized tests to measure their intellectual capacity, and just like with college exams, there are two different tests to choose from. 

In this article, we’ll cover why these schools ask for standardized tests at all, what your options are, and what the actual differences are between the ISEE and the SSAT. Just as with the ACT vs the SAT, neither test is better; but some students are better suited to approach one or the other. We hope that this article gives you the information you need to pick the test that works best for you. Let’s jump in!

Why do Private High Schools Want Standardized Tests?

Private high schools pride themselves on the academic rigor of their curriculums, especially at the top end. These schools have more students who want to attend than they have seats, giving them the luxury of being highly selective with which students they admit. Therefore, they want to prioritize students with the capacity to do well with the rigorous curriculum they offer. 

While they do use your grades and teacher recommendations from middle school to evaluate your academic potential, they know that not all middle schools have the same standards, or offer the same level of academic preparation. A standardized test theoretically gives them a single unified benchmark they can use to compare all applicants. While these test scores are not the most important piece of your application, they are a key component.

Understanding the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE)

The ISEE is an exam administered by the Educational Records Bureau, with the goal of testing both your reasoning abilities and your academic knowledge. The exam is currently accepted by more than 1,200 private schools. It is given in either a paper or online format.

There are four different versions of the ISEE, depending on the grade you are attempting to enter. These are: 

  • Primary for grades 2-4
  • Lower for grades 5-6
  • Middle for grades 7-8
  • Upper for grades 9-12

We will be focusing specifically on the upper exam in this article, as we focus primarily on helping students with their transition to highschool (and then later to college). This test is divided into five separate timed sections: 

  • Verbal Reasoning (40 questions, 20 minutes)
  • Quantitative reasoning (37 questions, 35 minutes)
  • Reading comprehension (36 questions, 35 minutes)
  • Mathematics (47 questions, 40 minutes)
  • Essay (optional) (1 prompt, 30 minutes)
  • 2 hours 40 minutes total test time

The verbal reasoning section is designed to test grade level appropriate vocabulary and sentence completion ability. Quantitative reasoning tests math concepts through reasoning and word problems. Reading comprehension has students read six passages on humanities, science, and social studies topics, and answer questions on each. The mathematics section tests students’ knowledge of mathematical rules and concepts. 

All of the above sections are multiple choice. Each question has four possible answers. Note that question difficulty increases as you progress through a section. The essay section has students respond to a single prompt. This section is optional and unscored, but the essay you write will be provided to schools along with your score reports. Whether a school considers your essay depends on the institution, but it is often used to check on your skill as a writer compared to your application essay.

Scoring the ISEE

The ISEE is scored on a scale of 760 to 940. They also provide a percentile rank, from 1 through 99, which measures your performance relative to all students who have taken the exam over the past three years. It is this percentile rank that most schools use when evaluating your performance. 

Thus your raw score matters less than how well you do relative to all others who have taken the test. We therefore cannot state with certainty what score you should aim for, but do know that you should aim to be in the 75th percentile if you are applying to top private schools. This means that for every hundred people who take the test, you are better than 75 of them. 

Understanding the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT)

The SSAT is an exam administered by the Enrollment Management Association, which also operates the Standard Application Online, which many private schools use to manage admissions. It is administered around the world by official testing centers, and is also proctored by third party organizations. 

As with the ISEE, the exam is divided into different versions depending on your age. These are: 

  • Elementary for students in grades 3 and 4
  • Middle for students in grades 5 through 7
  • Upper for students in grade 8 through 11

Students take the test based on their current grade, not the grade they are applying to. We will focus on the upper level exam here, as that is the version taken by students applying to high school. This version of the exam is separated into six separate timed sections:

  • Writing (1 question, 25 minutes)
  • Math (25 questions, 30 minutes)
  • Reading (40 questions, 40 minutes)
  • Verbal (60 questions, 30 minutes)
  • Math (25 questions, 30 minutes)
  • Experimental (16 questions, 15 minutes)
  • 3 hours 5 minutes total (including two breaks)

As with the ISEE, the writing section is unscored, but the written response you submit will be made available to the schools you apply to alongside your score report. This is so those schools may have another sample by which to examine your skill as a writer. The SSAT gives you two prompts, one creative and one a more standard essay, and asks you to respond to one of them.

The math section covers number concepts and operations, algebra, geometry and data analysis. The reading section features passages of 250-350 words each, which you must read and then answer questions on. These are argumentative or narrative passages, and cover literary fiction, humanities, science, and social studies. 

The verbal section has synonym and analogy questions. These focus on recognizing the meanings of and relationships between words, and focus on grade-appropriate vocabulary. The experimental section at the end asks six verbal, five reading, and five math questions. These are unscored, but are used to test new questions which may be featured on the test in the future. 

Scoring the SSAT

The SSAT is scored by section, and these are totalled to produce your overall score. At the upper level, each section is worth 500-800 points, producing overall scores between 1500 and 2400. As with the ISEE, you are also given a percentile rank from 1-99, which compares your performance to those of students who have taken teh test over the past three years. Note that you receive 1 point for every question you answer correctly, no points for leaving a question blank, and lose ¼ of a point for every question you answer incorrectly. 

As with the ISEE, it is your percentile score most schools focus on, rather than your raw score. What a school wants from your score depends on where you are applying; top private schools such as Andover or Exeter want students who score in the 80th percentile or above, while most private schools want students who are above the 50th percentile. 

Final Thoughts

Tests can be a tricky thing, especially for students who struggle with test anxiety. If you want help preparing for the SSAT or ISEE, we have dedicated test prep mentors with years of experience who can help your student maximize their potential scores. Reach out to us today to learn how we can help you.

Of course, the tests are not the only part of an application that private schools consider, and indeed, they are far from the most important component. To learn how we can help your student prepare for and succeed in every step of the private school admissions process, or for advice on finding the best school for your student’s needs, schedule a free consultation today. We have years of experience helping students succeed, and are always happy to hear from you.

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