October 7, 2015

What is the ISEE

The Independent School Entrance Exam is used as an admissions test as part of the entry screening process. Independent schools are not regulated by the government, churches or synagogues and therefore may set their own admission standards. Many of these non-public schools choose to use the ISEE to determine aptitude and knowledge of the child seeking admission. However, this exam usually comprises a part of the admissions requirement; although doing extremely well on the ISEE may help your child get into your school of choice, doing poorly on the exam may not bar him entrance. Check with the school to learn more about their individual admission requirements.

The ISEE has three competency levels: low, mid and upper. Regardless of which level the child takes, all tests will cover the same five categories of mathematics achievement, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and an essay. However, the questions will vary depending on the child’s level of learning ability. For instance, the low, mid and upper level questions are constructed as age-appropriate and will only test on what the child should already know based on national averages. The ISEE essay is not graded. This portion of the exam is forwarded directly to the school where you are applying for their consideration.
The Educational Records Bureau, or ERB, is the governing body for the ISEE test, content, applications and testing results. The ERB provides a wealth of information including sample questions and practice tests online. Preparation for this exam may be harrowing due to its’ nature – aptitude examinations do not always test items from rote memory, they test the ability to apply what you already know. The test cannot be taken merely for practice; it must be taken in conjunction with a school application and cannot be taken more than once every six months. For more information take a look at the article, “Preparing for the ISEE”. Your child may take her cues from you – if you are anxious about their impending examination they may fear it as well.

The low competency version is administered to fourth and fifth graders seeking admission to fifth and sixth grade. The ISEE is not available to children in lower grade levels; independent elementary schools have standardized tests that are more appropriate for children of a younger age. If your child has just completed elementary school and you are considering private schooling, an academy or an independent school, you need to check and see if that school uses ISEE testing.

The mid-competency level exam is administered to children who are in sixth or seventh grade and seeking entrance to seventh or eighth grade. The ERB does not allow grade-level skipping; a fourth grader cannot sit for the mid-level examination regardless of their proven intelligence level. If your child is exceptionally gifted, you might want to look into other tests or discuss the options of grade skipping with the school administration. However, keep in mind that your child’s ISEE test results will be scored based on other children’s top performances over the last three years at the same testing level. Scores might be higher or lower in reflection of that three-year trend.

Children in eighth through eleventh grade must take the upper level ISEE for entrance into ninth through twelfth grades. Due to the large span of knowledge between these grade levels your child is scored against their peers in the same age group. Your eighth grader is not expected to score as highly as a tenth grader taking the same ISEE examination.

ISEE Content

Knowing the content of an examination will give your child confidence and the ability to prepare in the right areas of focus. The Independent School Entrance Examination, or ISEE, is an aptitude test for which the focus of material is very broad. Learning about the five testing categories and content may minimize wasted study time. This test can only be taken once every 6 months and there are no refunds for retakes. Proper preparation is the only way to ensure your child does his best on the ISEE.

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning contains content that will test your child’s vocabulary and language abilities. The questions will either ask for a synonym or a sentence completion. For younger children taking the low and mid exam types the sentence completion may only include one-word answers, whereas high level testing students may need to pick the correct grammatical phrase to complete sentences appropriately.

ISEE Content

The questions involving synonyms test your child’s vocabulary. The words chosen represent school word lists appropriate for your child’s age and grade level. Some of the four possible answers may be close to, but not exactly the best synonym for the given word. Children with limited vocabularies may find these questions challenging, as the ISEE does not place the synonym questions in a context – it lists the word and then the four possible matches.

Quantitative Reasoning

Created using the standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the quantitative reasoning section tests your child’s ability to understand math, not complete the arithmetic, algebra and equations. Questions may focus on interpretation, estimation, analysis of a problem or even reasoning and logic. The difficulty of this section is determined by which test level your child is taking, including the low, mid or upper versions.

Although there are no exact calculations needed in quantitative reasoning, the student must know how to identify what would be used such as division or addition. Some of the questions may produce a problem and ask your child how the problem would best be solved based on the answers given. Other questions may ask about mathematical properties, such as the distributive property, in assessing your child’s understanding of number representation.

Reading Comprehension

The ISEE reading comprehension section will test your child’s ability to verbalize an understanding of the material they read. The level of test your child takes will determine the number of passages and questions in this section. The concepts tested include an understanding of main versus supporting ideas, vocabulary and usage, conclusions and inference, organization, tone and style. Each passage will have a set of questions inquiring about one of these testable concepts.

Mathematics Achievement

Your child may not use a calculator for the mathematics-testing portion, although calculations may be required to solve problems in this section. Students must display knowledge of mathematical terms, such as sum or dividend, to solve problems correctly. Math problems may involve algebra, geometry, number placement or even probability questions. The ERB encourages students to double-check their work if they have the time.


The essay portion consists of an essay topic or question, which the student must answer in no more than two lined pages within 30 minutes or less. The topics are generated by the ERB and can change daily. Topic examples are listed on their website, so you can help your child gain an appreciation for the types of questions they may be asked to answer. Most essay-type questions usually evoke an opinion and the child’s answer and supporting rationale become the essay body. This is the only portion of the ISEE that is not graded; the essay is sent directly to the independent school where you are applying.

ISEE Preparation

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is an aptitude test that measures your child’s abilities against her peers at the same grade level. The test is used as part of an admissions process for qualifying independent schools, which are non-public schools that do not fall under government or religious affiliations. Although the test covers what your child should know to this point, preparation is essential to help your child maximize their scoring potential and gain admission into their grade school of choice.

Where to Start

The ISEE is composed of five different sections including quantitative and verbal reasoning, mathematics, reading comprehension and a timed essay. The actual ISEE test directions are available online – review them with your child and stress the importance of following directions closely. You may also want to inform your child that they can guess if they do not know the answer to a question. There is no penalty for guessing incorrectly, however skipped questions will show up in their ISEE grading report. They will need to understand that this is a timed test with minutes allotted for each section.

Parental Involvement

Your involvement is vital to your child’s ISEE success. There are many ways you can help your child relax and do their best on the exam. Start by reading through the testing guidelines and learning about the examination. You can arrange for your child to take a practice test, either online or a pencil-paper exam, to learn where you must focus your studying efforts prior to the actual test day. Match up the practice exam with the real test as much as possible; do not have your daughter take a pencil-paper exam if she will be taking the real ISEE online. Both practice test formats are widely available either through online sources or the Educational Records Bureau.


Although only one of the five ISEE testing sections is based on reading comprehension, taking a multiple-choice style test uses a modicum of reading comprehension skills. For instance, your child may be testing in the quantitative reasoning section, but if he cannot understand the meaning of the question he will not have the resources to choose the best answer. Set aside a time each day for your son or daughter to read quietly to themselves. Like any other skill, reading comprehension will be built through practice, practice and practice.


Although the topics constantly change, you can help your child study for the essay portion of the ISEE. This section involves a topic usually in the format of a question with two lined-pages for a response. There is a 30-minute time limit on the essay, so familiarity with writing essays is vital to success. Give your child practice essay topics, such as asking, “Who was your most influential teacher and why?”. The actual ISEE essay topic will most likely stimulate a paper on opinion. Review the basics of essay writing with your child such as taking a stance, writing an outline and fleshing out the topic with interesting details when possible. Remind them that this is not a ‘graded’ portion of the exam, however the essay will go directly to the school administration.

Remember, there is no ‘re-take’ for the ISEE and there are no failing grades. The test can be taken every 6 months or during admissions season for schools. Your child’s results will stay with them for that time period. The test is scored against your child’s peers taking the same test. It is a competitive way to rank your child’s aptitude and current knowledge. Make sure they eat, sleep and relax before test day.

ISEE Scores

ISEE ScoresThe Independent School Entrance Examination, or ISEE, tests your child’s knowledge and ability to learn. Used as a tool for acceptance into independent school systems, the ISEE is required to ascertain your child’s educational ability in comparison to their peers. Due to the competitive nature of the admissions process, your child’s test results represent more than just a raw score. The ISEE scoring system covers many aspects of grading from analysis to percentile placement.

Individual Student Report

Within 7 to 10 days of completing the ISEE you will receive the Individual Student Report, or ISR for short. This includes a detailed analysis of the child’s performance on the exam and is valid for six-months. The Educational Records Bureau, or ESB, will forward up to six ISR to schools of your choosing. However, there is a fee associated with requesting extra reports. The student’s essay portion of the exam is not included in the parent’s report – it is only released to the schools.

Additional Scoring Fees

The ERB requires additional fees for hand scoring, rescoring and for telephonic or online score reporting. However, online score reporting may only be obtained if you registered your child online for the test. Additionally, admissions counselors at your chosen schools will only accept scores from the ERB; no test reports are accepted from parents. If you discover an additional school after the ISEE you may request the ERB to release test results to that school.

Scaled Score

The four ISEE sections are lumped together for the scaled score at the top of your child’s ISR. Although a raw score is available, it is not valid due to the fact that there are so many different versions of the same ISEE test administered. Scaling your child’s score makes it relevant in comparison with other students and test versions. Scaled score values range from 940 at the highest to 760 at the lowest. Your child’s number is a representation of the number of questions they answered correctly.

Percentile Ranking

Many children will receive similar or even the same scaled score on the ISEE. However, this number does not represent their areas of expertise nor does it tell you where your child ranks amongst all ISEE test takers. The percentile ranking system uses overall scores compiled from the prior three years of test-takers, placing your child somewhere in that percentage based on their performance in each section. For instance, your son may be placed in the 75th percentile for reading comprehension, meaning that he performed better than 74 percent of the children who took the ISEE. However, he may score in the 50th percentile for mathematics, which means he did better than half the students who took the exam.


A further breakdown of percentiles found on your ISR is called a stanine. The stanines are a categorical representation of percentiles. There are nine stanines with 1 being the lowest possible, representing children who scored in the 1 to 3rd percentiles on a section. The highest stanine available is 9, which represents children who scored in the 96 to 99th percentile, the highest score available. If a school admissions counselor is trying to choose between admitting two children, then the stanine might make or break their acceptance.


The final section in the ISR is the student analysis, where the four content sections are broken down by question. The analysis lists exactly how the child scored on each question, using a + for answering correctly, a – for an incorrect answer and a S for a skipped question. The answers are listed graduating from the easiest questions to the hardest. If the child’s report states three minuses followed by three pluses it means that he missed the first three easy questions but answered the three hardest questions correctly. Admissions counselors use this information when competition is keen.

Choosing an Independent School

There are a plethora of non-public schools available to choose from, however few parents may actually know the differences between them. Independent schools, although private, are not the same as Montessori or parochial schools. Independent School Entrance Exams (ISEE) are just that – independent. There is no governing body or subsidizing institution. The government funds public schools whereas parochial schools are funded by a church or synagogue. Educational institutions are further subdivided into the categories of for and not-for profit. Independent schools are not-for-profit, generating only their sustaining trust through tuition and a board of trustees for fiduciary decisions. Independent schools may include boarding schools or traditional day-school facilities. Choosing an independent school is a very personal decision to be made amongst a student and their parents.


Every taxpayer with children has the option to place their kids in a public school. Your residence location indicates which school zone your child is in, with the county telling you where to attend. Some parents choose independent schools over the public system, as they believe their child will receive a better, safer or more competitive education.

There are many considerations involved in choosing an independent school for your child. Ask questions to learn about that school’s national testing averages, the educational level of their faculty, teacher to student ratio, number of students in the school, their diversity and the school’s accreditation status.

Your questions and considerations may vary by the age and interests of your children. Independent schools provide education from kindergarten through high school depending on the school you choose. Whereas the presence of a drama program may be the main focus for your adolescent, it probably wouldn’t affect the decision for the parent of a kindergartener. Likewise, if you have a child with special needs you must consider the school’s options for your child and their ability to advocate for him.


As with any decision you make for your child you will need to weigh the cons of sending your child to an independent school. For one, you will be altering their social interactions, perhaps by removing them from their current school or removing them from a large, public environment to a smaller private one. Unlike public schools, independent school education is not free – there is an annual tuition fee and possibly laboratory and learning material fees as well depending on the school.

Entrance into some independent schools is competitive. Many schools may have waiting lists or will not guarantee all siblings entrance into their school. This can be challenging for families with multiple children with different educational abilities. Another consideration is the location, which will be vitally important if you are driving children to different schools every morning. Inquire about transportation, as independent schools are not mandated to provide this.

Admission Requirements

Each independent school sets their own specific admission requirements. For the most part, the school will require an application, interview with your child, transcripts, and their standardized testing results. For Pre-K through 4th grade the admissions test most frequently used is the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment, or the ECAA. Fifth graders and up use the Independent School Entrance Exam, or the ISEE. Both of these tests are offered through the Educational Records Bureau computerized or in a pencil and paper exam format. The results of your child’s ECAA or ISEE may determine the number of independent school options they have, especially for those schools with keen admission competition.

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