Your In-Depth Guide to Conquering the ISEE


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Few standardized tests are as mysterious as the ISEE. Almost every parent has some knowledge of the SAT or the ACT, but the ISEE is a relatively new, nuanced exam riddled with mysterious grading scales and shrouded in myth. To add to parental confusion, for many students, the ISEE represents their first real experience with standardized testing with an impact on their future. The ISEE directly impacts a student’s educational options in a new and often terrifying way. This post aims to demystify the ISEE by separating myth from reality and providing clear, concise test preparation advice.

First, Some Context

Before launching into a discussion of stanine scores and test prep strategies, it is important to note one crucial fact about the ISEE: it is intended to measure a student’s cumulative learning. Unlike the SAT or the ACT, which most high school students take, the ISEE is a content-heavy exam designed to tease out a student’s aptitude in a unique set of academic skills that are inherently cumulative. This does not mean the ISEE is by any means uncoachable (we’ll get to that shortly). Rather, defining success of the ISEE requires the proper perspective. The skills needed on the exam cannot be learned overnight. Foundational math skills and fluency in reading skills, and a well-developed vocabulary are critical to excellent scores on the ISEE. No test prep guru can magically fix cumulative gaps overnight. Likewise, we should acknowledge the ISEE’s role in the broader admissions package. Superb ISEE scores do not have nearly as much impact on a student’s admissions decision as the ACT or SAT exams do on college admissions. Application essays, interviews, teacher recommendation letters, and transcripts can help balance out a student’s admissions package.

Levels of the ISEE & Composition of the Test

The ISEE contains four sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, and mathematics achievement. The exam also includes an essay, which is not scored. However, a copy of the essay is sent to the schools when the student applies. The nitty-gritty details of exam content are too nuanced to explain in this format. For more information, please review the test maker’s website (erblearn.org). There are currently four versions of the ISEE that are administered based on the grade to which a student is applying. Applicants to grades 2 through 4 sit for the Primary Level exam, applicants to grades 5 and 6 sit for the Lower Level exam, applicants to grades 7 and 8 sit for the Middle Level exam, and applicants to grades 9 through 12 sit for the Upper Level exam. For example, an eighth-grade student applying to Strake Jesuit will take the Upper Level exam. A sixth-grade student applying to seventh grade at St. Francis Episcopal Day School will take the Middle Level exam. There are few differences between the formats of these exams. The Lower and Upper Levels of the exam are similar to the Middle Level test in overall design and length, but the Lower Level is slightly shorter, and the Upper Level is somewhat longer. However, all three levels vary in rigor and are engineered for test takers of different ages.

One of the most trying aspects of the ISEE is its length. Outside of a few nationalized exams like the STAR or the ERB, the ISEE often represents the most daunting exam a student has ever seen in both length and rigor. Multiple hours of focused test-taking combined with the novel pressures of school admissions create a uniquely stressful cloud around the ISEE, especially for students with learning differences. Luckily, with the proper test preparation, any student can stave off the mental stress of the exam and demonstrate his or her academic potential.

Scoring the ISEE

An ISEE score report is uniquely confusing for both parents and students. Riddled with jargon such as “stanine score” and “percentile rank,” the ISEE scoring methods often lead to profound misunderstandings. In short, students receive a percentile rank from 1 to 99 based on the number of multiple-choice questions they answer correctly. For instance, if a student receives a percentile rank of ’65’ on Verbal Reasoning, it means he or she performed equal to or better than 65% of test-takers in her cohort. This cohort, or norm group, is comprised of the most recent three years of test-takers for the same exam level (primary, lower, middle, or upper). The norm group is further refined to applicants applying to the same grade (e.g. 9th-grade upper level exam takers are separated from 11th graders). Next, percentile ranks are grouped into nine percentile ranges known as stanines. These stanine scores are abundantly helpful to admissions directors as they help determine where a student falls in the broader academic spectrum. The percentile rank, on the other hand, is not as important. For example, a student in the 40th percentile and a student in the 55th percentile will receive the same stanine score for that section. Admissions directors often ignore the minute differences in percentile score.

Parents should know that ISEE scoring is essentially incomparable with standard academic scoring, such as the methods used on a math test or an English essay. In fact, the majority of students who take the ISEE fall into the stanine range of 4 to 6 (54%), while the minority fall into the stanine ranges of 1 to 3 (23%) and 7 to 9 (23%). It is also helpful to point out that the highest stanines are attained by a minuscule fraction of test-takers. Nationwide, only 4% of students obtain a 9, while a marginal 7% of test-takers are awarded an 8. This grade distribution remains largely unchanged year after year, as the ISEE test makers continue to test new questions and design the test to trend toward the middle. This can come as a shock to both students and parents who are used to elite scores on other exams. However, it is important to note that the ISEE is designed to be difficult.

Why Is the ISEE So Difficult?

The ISEE is inherently tricky for two reasons. Firstly, this exam is designed with very different goals than the exams students take in school. A seventh-grade teacher expects most students to finish with a test average of 80% or higher. The teacher wants his or her students to reflect mastery over the material. The ISEE, on the other hand, is intended to sort students into discrete groups based on perceived acuity. The teacher wants almost every student to score well on the exam, while the ISEE creators need to show distinctions in student ability, hence the incredibly low percentage (23%) of students who score a seven or higher each year. Secondly, the ISEE contains content that is intentionally outside the scope of most curriculums. In other words, they give questions that most students should not be able to answer. Remember, the same ISEE is administered to incoming ninth-graders and to incoming twelfth-graders. These two groups should not have an equal level of comfort with the material. That’s why one of the first steps we take when preparing students for the ISEE is to teach them to be comfortable with confusing questions.

A Note on Multiple Test Dates

Since August of 2016, students can register and sit for up to three official ISEE administrations. This is crucial because single test scores don’t always reflect a student’s potential. The heightened anxiety for their first standardized test in an unfamiliar environment is only one factor that leads to fluke test scores. Poor sleep, a cold, a demanding baseball tournament, you name it, the score reflects a student’s headspace o that day. Therefore, we recommend at least two attempts. It’s important to note this policy also allows families to submit test scores to schools selectively. Students can submit just one score or a portfolio of exam scores, depending on their admissions goals. However, Students are not able to individually send their highest section scores per test date, unlike the ACT and SAT “super scoring” method.

Our Approach to ISEE Preparation

ISEE prep, especially under a time crunch, should not seek to cram a student’s brain with content outside of his or her comfort zone. Instead, students should utilize the ISEE as an opportunity to master essential test-taking skills. We teach students the essentials of pacing, managing anxiety, and exam strategy. The key to success on the ISEE is to teach students how to identify questions with a high probability of success. Spending adequate time on these “money questions” and ignoring the pitfalls of trick questions and “out-of-scope content” is the best way to keep students calm and confident on test day. There is no penalty for guessing on the ISEE, as students are scored on the number of questions answered correctly. So, we teach to evaluate a question’s potential, pace themselves accordingly, and demonstrate their potential calmly throughout the sections.

Need Some Help?

Our mission is to arm students with the proper tools and tactics they need to achieve their academic potential. Outside of our tried and true executive functioning skill curriculum, a few select team members specialize in ISEE preparation. For more information, please reach out today.

Evan Weinberger

About SAOTG

Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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