The ISEE Is Vulnerable To Test Prep

06/25/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2011
  • Alex Mallory Founder & President, Competitive Edge Tutoring LLC

The ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam) is a standardized test for admission to independent schools, developed and administered by the ERB (Educational Records Bureau). It is the test of choice for the majority of independent day schools and, consequently, is of continual concern to admission-crazed families. For the uninitiated, there are three versions: the Lower Level, for students in grades four and five applying for admission to grades five and six; the Middle Level, for students in grades six and seven applying for admission to grades seven and eight; and the Upper Level, for students in grades eight to 11 applying for admission to grades nine to 12.

The ISEE appears to be the most daunting of all standardized admission exams. The students who take the exam are self-selecting. Most are well prepared since they have grown up in a highly competitive independent school environment. So, although they frequently perform well above the national average, they may only produce average ISEE scores. Also, the ERB issues very little in the way of practice material and, unlike the SAT or ACT, the ISEE may be taken only once during each admission period, i.e., once every six months, and may not be taken unless there is an actual application to a school (or several schools). Competition is fierce because doing well on the ISEE is essential for gaining acceptance to an elite middle or high school, considered a win in this early phase of jockeying for a position in the college-admissions race.

Despite these difficulties, the good news is that taking the ISEE is still manageable since its structure allows for the design of successful test-prep strategies.

In each of its four sections -- Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning (math), Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement -- students are assessed by comparison to test takers in their grade level only. That is, a fifth grader taking the middle-level exam will only be compared to other fifth graders, not all middle-level test takers, to produce a final scaled score.

More difficult questions, which appear toward the end of each section, are designed to be too challenging for younger students in each exam level. They may, for example, require simple algebra, a type of math generally not taught until the sixth or seventh grade. However, bright fifth graders who have the aptitude to learn algebra before taking the ISEE can take advantage of the test design since the vast majority of fifth graders will not be prepared to answer those questions.

The same concept holds true for the reading portion of the exam. The most difficult questions require students to analyze implicit ideas and synthesize disparate information to form logical predictions and conclusions. This higher thinking is not expected of younger students, but, again, can be taught to gain an advantage over a student's peers.

The ISEE essay, unlike that of the ACT and SAT, is submitted directly to the admissions office of the school(s) to which a student applies and is not evaluated by the ERB. The essay may be the only chance a school has to see a student's unedited writing and is, therefore, considered an important component of the exam.

Regardless of the essay prompt given for a particular exam, the standards for judging excellence in organization and structure in a student's response are more or less the same for every school. And those general principles can also be taught.