School Report

How to Ace the Private School Entrance Exam

Tips on helping ensure that your child will own the ISEE.

By Catherine Wendlandt Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine

Remember taking the SAT? You’re 17, and you show up to school on a Saturday, Breakfast Club–style, armed with No. 2 pencils and a blue or black pen, to take an hours-long test that you’re convinced will not just determine where (or whether) you’ll go to college but dictate your entire future. Terrifying, right? Now imagine doing the equivalent at age 14, or even 6. Yikes.

For students hoping to attend private school, sitting for the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) is like taking the SAT, although it isn’t intended to be as daunting. The ISEE is an old test—private schools have been using it for decades—but it’s not designed to trip students up, says Sasha Chada, who founded Ivy Scholars, a local tutoring company, in 2015. It’s much more straightforward than college entrance exams, plus—as with the SATs and the ACTs— your child can train before taking it. “The point of the ISEE is to help schools gauge the level of achievement a student is at before they admit the student,” he says.

The ISEE is used by private schools across the country, including many in Houston—around 35 local schools use this test to vet prospective students, says Chada, including Emery/Weiner, Woodlands Preparatory, and Incarnate Word. If you’re new to the private school world, you probably have never heard of the ISEE, but it’s a key step in helping institutions of learning select their students. So Houstonia asked Chada to give us the lowdown on everything students (and their parents) need to know before subjecting themselves to the whims of this particular brand of Sorting Hat.

What is the exam’s structure?

The ISEE is divided into four age levels: Primary (taken by grades 1–3), lower (4–5), middle (6–7), and upper (8–11). The primary level, lasting an hour, features reading and math sections, plus a writing sample. This one isn’t taken too seriously, Chada says. After all, imagine a typical 6-year-old merely having to sit still long enough to take the test. “Very often at that grade level, it’s more important to observe a student’s social characteristics,” he says.

Lower, middle, and upper iterations of the exam all take around 2.5 hours to complete—give or take, and depending on the grade of the test-taker—and feature four sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, and mathematics achievement. Chada says the reasoning sections measure a student’s aptitude—their potential to learn—and the other two sections measure achievement—what they’ve learned so far.

How does scoring work?

“The ISEE scoring system is really confusing,” Chada says, so be sure to get a good grasp on what each score means before you get the results. The exam divides the testing body into nine percentage ranges, called stanines. If your child performs between the 40th and 60th percentile on the exam, their stanine score is 5, which is considered normal. Between the 60th and 75th percentiles will rate a 6; 76th to 88th, a 7; 89th to 95th, an 8; and if your child scores between the 96th and 99th percentiles, their stanine is 9. (And you might want to consider having them start doing your taxes, because that’s an indication your kid is a very smart cookie.)

Chada says most Houston private schools will accept a stanine of 5. More competitive schools, like Strake Jesuit and St. Agnes, ask for 6, and the most competitive schools, like Kinkaid and St. John’s, will want a 7. The focus on percentiles means the ISEE functions as a relative test: Your child is graded on a curve against other students’ performances. “That means you fall behind by staying in place,” Chada says. “If everyone else does better, your score goes down.”

When should my child take the ISEE?

School applications are usually due in late winter or early spring. Chada says that if you want your child to go to private high school, for example, you need to start thinking about the ISEE near the end of seventh grade. That way your child will be ready to take it in August as they are starting eighth grade. “Then they’ll be able to take the test twice,” he says. “Once in the fall, once in the winter, which means they’ve got two windows.”

Testing is divided into three seasons: fall (August through November), winter (December through March), and spring/ summer (April through July). Chada says the exam is usually offered at least four times a season, but each student can take it only once during each exam period.

What other entrance exams are there?

Many Catholic schools will accept the HSPT (High School Placement Test) instead of the ISEE. Chada says this exam is “a little less rigorous,” and since the ISEE is almost universally accepted, “it’s a better bet.” Some more rigorous schools might also ask for the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT)—a psychological aptitude exam that measures a student’s reasoning abilities—in addition to the ISEE.

How much does taking the ISEE test cost?

Pricing ranges from $125 to $265, depending on where it’s being administered. For parents nervous about large group testing sites during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chada says the ISEE also has remote, on-demand testing options as well as regularly scheduled in-person exams.

How should my child study?

Parents probably shouldn’t let their child plan their own test prep, in Chada’s view, no matter how much they say they’ve got this. “There are some brilliant eighth graders out there—some who compose music, do calculus—but I have never once met an eighth grader who’s good at project management,” Chada says.

Start out with a diagnostic test—such as when high schoolers take the PSAT, in part to see how much they need to prep for the SAT—to figure out any subjects your child might be struggling with. Chada cautions parents to make sure this test is graded like the ISEE. Next comes the actual studying, divided into two phases: content and technique. Content is just learning the raw material, like the Pythagorean Theorem or the vocabulary they’ll need to help in identifying synonyms. Once they’ve mastered those topics, Chada suggests moving on to the second phase: technique. Here students practice test-taking skills, like pacing and educated guessing, that can help them score the way naturally gifted test-takers (i.e., not necessarily more gifted kids) do.

Before everything, however, parents need to “have a talk with their child about how much work they want to put into their goals,” Chada says. A student needs to take ownership over their studying, and be willing to put in the effort, if a high score on the ISEE will help them fulfill their aspirations. Helping kids understand the implications of their decisions and habits—whatever their ultimate aims—is all part of helping them grow into self-sufficient adults. And if they’re so inclined, here’s hoping they crush the ISEE.

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