The Ivy Coach Daily

September 3, 2022


We offer SSAT and ISEE tutoring at Ivy Coach.

What are the ISEE and the SSAT exams? The ISEE and the SSAT are admissions tests required by most competitive private schools. Scoring on these tests, summarized in levels 1-9 called stanines, can be a major factor in the admissions process to these schools — especially at the most prestigious ones. Each test is offered multiple times a year and students can take the tests on paper, on a computer at a test center, or online from home. Both tests are offered in multiple levels for admissions from grades 3-12, while the ISEE also tests for entrance to grade 2. 

The content of these multiple choice exams is very similar. Both have a Verbal section, testing synonyms and vocabulary in context. For the ISEE, the latter is tested through Sentence Completions, in which students pick the best word to fill a blank in a sentence. On the SSAT, students match analogies. (As an aside, both of these latter two question types are classic to the old SAT, and are extremely coachable!)

Both tests have a Reading section, with passages followed by questions on content, details, main idea, and tone. These are essentially similar except that the SSAT Reading section may include a poem among the passages. Passages are a mix of fiction, science, social studies, and history. 

Both tests have two Math sections. On the ISEE, they are divided into “Quantitative Reasoning” and “Math Achievement.” The first is more a test of math logic and reasoning (though success in that area is highly dependent on math achievement). The most striking difference between the two tests’ math sections is the “Quantitative Comparisons” block of questions within the ISEE “Quantitative Reasoning” test. These require students to evaluate a pair of equations or values and determine whether one is greater than the other, they are equal, or there is no basis for comparison. Some feel this question type makes the ISEE harder, but our tutors at Ivy Coach have found that students can handle these questions just fine with practice. Yet there is a much more important difference between the two tests, one that may make the ISEE a better choice, in fact, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Which test should my child take: ISEE or SSAT?

Parents whose children are applying to private or independent middle schools or high schools often ask us at Ivy Coach, “Is it better for my child to take the ISEE or the SSAT?” The answer, of course, depends on the specific schools to which your child is applying. After all, certain schools, like many boarding schools, prefer the SSAT — and they’re quite open about it. While still other schools prefer the ISEE. But let’s forget for a moment which schools prefer which specific test. Let’s instead focus on the actual tests. Which of the tests is better and why?

In the opinion of Ivy Coach’s SSAT and ISEE tutors, the ISEE is a better exam than the SSAT. This is largely because the ISEE, unlike the SSAT, has no error penalty. On the SSAT, for every four errors in a test section (Verbal, Reading, two Math sections), one point is deducted. A whole point! This, in our opinion, is extremely detrimental to students, particularly to those students in the middle range and below. If students do have a choice, if the school is agnostic, the ISEE is thus the better option.

And if families are still undecided, students can do a practice test for the ISEE and SSAT and see which of the two exams they prefer. Scoring, however, is very arcane in our opinion and determining scores on practice tests in order to then compare against one another is often unreliable. Yet, even so, students can still see whether they make a lot more errors on one test than the other. Of course, when scoring the SSAT, one should add one more error for every four actual errors in each section to account for that error penalty.

How early should younger students start their ISEE or SSAT prep?

We recommend starting specific test preparation by the late spring/early summer before the testing season. If one starts too early, younger children, in our experience, really aren’t ready for the material. And if one starts too late, like in September, it’s often not enough time to make a huge difference, since the tests really do test cumulatively acquired skills and knowledge.

We also recommend that parents don’t start their children too early on official practice tests for the level at which they will be testing. After all, there aren’t that many of these exams out there! For the ISEE, there is only one official test published by the test maker, with just one more available to subscribers to their associated online resource. Similarly, the SSAT only has three official practice tests for middle and high school levels. And for both of these tests, there is minimal official practice material at the early elementary level. If your child is starting his or her prep while between grade levels (for example, if he or she is in 5th grade currently, but will be taking the ISEE Middle Level test in the fall of 6th grade for entry to 7th grade), then you may get your child familiar with the test by using practice tests from the Lower Level for starters.

How can my child boost their ISEE or SSAT score?

Introduce advanced math if your child is amenable to it. First, though, make sure he or she is doing the best possible work in school math. Encourage your child to try all the “spicy” questions! Do math games at home or even introduce math puzzles. Keep it fun and light. If your child is game, then advance to topics that are a little more challenging. These lower level tests are new, and the questions are drawn from grade level material, so there’s lots of that to access via the Common Core test materials and grade level workbooks.

For students who are ready to advance in current grade level material or beyond, getting ahead will gain them points! And since each of these tests is taken for entrance to two to three different grades, the material on each test level will necessarily include harder questions in order to be meaningful to the older students. If your younger student can answer those questions, all the better!

For Verbal skills, it’s all about vocabulary. Encourage your child to read a variety of different stories: realistic, science, nature, sports, art, humor, fantasy. Point out challenging words in the readings and discuss them with your child. If your child is enthusiastic, introduce a vocabulary-building app. Quizlet is great to create their own flashcards with pictures and audio, even. For middle school age and up, Visual Vocab is a terrific tool (and don’t be intimidated by the SAT-level words — your 5th grader can learn these words, too!).

For Reading test preparation, talk with your child about his or her reading – whether it’s from school or bedtime stories – or even talk about movies or events: Why did this happen? How do you know that? How did the character feel about …? Why do you think that? The hardest thing for students to master is making that specific explanation rather than just giving the natural, conversational inferred reason. And these are the questions that the test asks!

All of this pre-preparation serves students as academic enrichment, too, of course. They’ll be more confident in class and perform better in reading, writing, and math as well. Even for families who aren’t yet sure whether private school is is on the horizon for their child, engaging in this comprehensive academic enrichment through expert tutoring is already a win.

If your child needs ISEE or SSAT prep, reach out to Ivy Coach by completing our free consultation form, indicate test prep and select ISEE or SSAT. We look forward to hearing from you!

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