If you are just beginning on the private school application journey, you may ask, what are these tests? How do they differ? How important are they?
Here’s a short overview:
The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is the most common entrance exam required by LA private schools for grades 5 and above. The ISEE is offered by the ERB (Educational Record Bureau) which also administers the CTP (Comprehensive Testing Program). Your student may have taken the yearly CTP in school. The CTP is content specific and curriculum based, whereas the ISEE tests the student’s achievement and reasoning skills.
The SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test) is requested by some Los Angeles private schools and required by all boarding schools. Both the SSAT and the ISEE tests math and verbal skills; both the ISEE and the SSAT are divided into grade appropriate levels (Lower, Middle, and Upper); and both the ISEE and the SSAT are scored on a curve against the other grade-level test-takers on a 3-year rolling norm.
Some differences between the two tests are that the SSAT penalizes for incorrect answers (1/4 point) but the ISEE does not; the SSAT has 5 answer options, the ISEE has 4; the SSAT combines the math scores into one score and the verbal 2, the ISEE presents all 4 scores separately.
Other differences to note are the reading passages: The SSAT passages are a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and the ISEE passages are non-fiction, science and history. The questions in the SSAT reading passage may be more complex and allow for more creative thinking and the ISEE reading passages are more straight forward and detail oriented. Both tests contain questions about inferences, main ideas, attitude, tone and vocabulary. In the verbal reasoning section, along with synonyms, the SSAT includes analogies, and the ISEE includes words in context. Since the SSAT does not give the test-taker any word context, students with a robust vocabulary will probably excel on the SSAT verbal section.
The math portions of both the ISEE and the SSAT includes numbers and operations, measurement, probability, data analysis, algebra and geometry. The ISEE math is considered more difficult as it also may include algebra 2, trigonometry and pre-calculus. The ISEE also provides less time per math problem. Students strong in math will usually do better with the ISEE math portion.
Both tests require an ungraded essay, the SSAT at the beginning of the test, the ISEE at the end, and both tests are long, averaging 2 hrs. and 45 minutes. Both tests are scored as a percent, a scaled score, and a percentile rank. Ultimately the ISEE receives a stanine from 1-9 in each area. Scores of 5 or above in each category are considered competitive, although each school adjusts to its own set of factors in weighing the importance of these scores.
The HSPT (High School Placement Test) is the entrance exam requested by Catholic high schools. It has only one level (Upper) and 5 sections, 3 verbal and 2 math. The HSPT is similar in content to both the ISEE and the SSAT but the questions tend to be less intensive and complex and it is much faster paced. The math includes arithmetic, exponent rules, order of operations and math fluency. The verbal is mostly synonyms, the reading is from humanities and history, the language section focuses on grammar, spelling, punctuation, parallelism and subject/verb agreement. Although the material itself is less difficult than the other exams, the timing is by far faster.
Certainly, none of the private school admissions tests is easy. They are cumulative achievement and reasoning tests based on many years of academic foundations. However, preparing to take these exams can actually present an exciting opportunity for a student.
Every student is different. Every student will have their own areas of strengths as well as areas in need of improvement. Preparing for the ISEE, SSAT, or HSPT presents an opportunity for a student to not only learn test-taking technique but also to address possible deficits in their educational foundations. If done correctly, test prep can be a game changer for many students.
Working individually with a private test prep tutor allows for a thorough and customized academic review. In a student’s life, there will be many exams. Learning a way to approach them is invaluable.