Thursday, June 11, 2009


Some students will be taking the SSAT this weekend as practice for the ISEE. We do not recommend students go through this exercise. We have seen instances where students were so shell shocked by how difficult the SSAT was that they were completely discouraged and afraid of the ISEE. Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote a few years ago comparing the two tests. This should give you the facts you need to decide if it makes sense for your child to take the SSAT as practice for the ISEE.

There is a school of thought that suggests that students preparing for the ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam) or the Latin School test take the SSAT in the spring, prior to taking the ISEE in the fall. It is helpful to understand some basic information about the two tests before you compare the differences in the tests, and determine whether or not it makes sense to take the SSAT as practice for the ISEE.

Students are only allowed to take the ISEE once every six months. The ISEE is typically administered in the fall. The ISEE also has three different levels: Lower, Middle and Upper. Lower Level test takers are in grades 4 and 5 at the time they take the test, and are applying for admission to grades 5 and 6. Middle Level test takers are in grades 6 and 7 at the time they take the test, and are applying for admission to grades 7 and 8. Upper Level test takers are in grades 8 and above at the time they take the test, and are applying for admission to grades 9 and above.

If a student takes the ISEE in the fall or spring of 5th grade, they are taking the Lower Level test. If that same student takes the test in the fall of 6th grade, they are taking the Middle level test. The Middle level test is more challenging than the Lower Level test. Test takers taking the Middle Level test can expect less time per section, more challenging questions, and a math section that contains much more Algebra and Geometry, as well as a Quantitative Comparison section (an analytical and reasoning section of math that is very different than they type of math most students have encountered in school). Many students struggle with Quantitative Comparisons in particular, because they are not used to solving math problems in this way. The Upper Level ISEE has a more challenging reading comprehension section, more advanced vocabulary than the Middle Level test, and more advanced math problems (particularly in Algebra).

Given the way the ISEE is structured, with Lower, Middle and Upper Level editions, and the six month testing restriction, there really is no way to take the test for practice. The Educational Records Bureau (ERB), the company that administers the ISEE, does not allow students to take the test for practice, and states in their registration material that students must be taking the test in concert with applying to a member school (a private school or an exam school). In fact, the ERB strongly recommends against “cramming” for the test – preparing for the test a few weeks before it is administered. For most students this type of last minute preparation does not work, and it is a waste of time. All that is accomplished is that the student is now very stressed about taking the test.

The ISEE is primarily used by private schools admitting students in grades 5-8. The ISEE is also used by the Boston Exam schools for admission to grades 7, 9 and 10 (O’Bryant School in the only exam school that admits students for grade 10). Most private schools require a different test for admission to the 9th grade and above. Catholic schools generally require the Catholic Schools Entrance Exam for admission to 9th grade and above. Private schools typically require the SSAT for high school admission (even if they require the ISEE for middle school admission). Some schools have their own test that they administer. It is wise to check with the school(s) to which you are planning to apply, to see what their specific requirements are for the grade level you will be applying for admission.

Now that we have learned a bit about the ISEE, let’s look at the SSAT. The SSAT is the Secondary School Admission Test. The SSAT has an Upper Level and a Lower Level section, no Middle Level. The Lower Level test is taken by students in the 5th, 6th and 7th grade at the time they take the test. The Upper Level test is taken by students in grades 8 and above. The SSAT is considered a harder test than the ISEE in many ways. Let’s look at some of the key differences.

  • The SSAT has a writing section that is timed for 25 minutes. The ISEE has a writing section that is timed for 30 minutes. There is no writing section on the Latin School Exam.
  • The SSAT has 5 multiple-choice answers for each questions, the ISEE has only 4 answers. So it is easier to guess on the ISEE.
  • The SSAT has a guessing penalty. For every wrong answer on the SSAT students lose one quarter of a point. There is no guessing penalty on the ISEE.
  • The SSAT has a section of Analogies. The ISEE has no Analogies.
  • The ISEE has a large Sentence Completion section; the SSAT has no Sentence Completions.
  • There are no Quantitative Comparison questions in the math section of the SSAT. The ISEE has a large Quantitative Comparison section, and it is very challenging for the majority of students (even for those who are normally strong in math). Quantitative comparisons are not math concepts that are generally taught in school.
  • The ISEE is also a longer test than the SSAT. The ISEE typically takes about 3 hours to complete. The SSAT is administered in about 2.5 hours. Many students suffer from “test fatigue” during longer tests.

There is no real value for students in taking the SSAT in the spring of the year they are going to take the ISEE, or the Latin School Test.

The two tests are vastly different: they test different material, the timing and the pace of the tests is different, the SSAT is harder than the ISEE in many ways, grading is different for the two test (guessing penalty vs. no guessing penalty) and the length of the tests is different (the ISEE is about 15% longer than the SSAT).

You are not comparing apples to apples when you use the SSAT as a proxy for how students might do on the ISEE. It is more like you are comparing apples to kumquats! Why test a student on analogies when they are not going to be on the ISEE? Why test on an essay that is not on the Exam School version of the ISEE? Why test on math that excludes one of the hardest sections of the ISEE (Quantitative Comparisons)? Why test on a verbal section on the SSAT that omits Sentence Completions (a key part of the ISEE verbal section)?

Most importantly, why put a student through the stress of taking a test that has no real value in determining how they will do on another test (the ISEE or Exam Schools test) that will be administered almost 6 months later?

1 comment:

  1. Which test would you recommend for someone going into 9th grade?