Get to Know the SSAT and ISEE: The Basics

Last updated May 17, 2021 

Applying for admission to private or independent schools can be daunting not only because schools may have their own individual admission requirements, but also because it may be the first time parents will navigate the complex standardized testing process. Don’t panic!

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The Testing Factor

Standardized testing is just one way schools will assess if your child is a good fit.

According to Drew Heilpern, General Manager of Summit Educational Group and test prep tutor, “School performance (grades and rigor), teacher recommendations, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, a personal interview, application essays, and demonstrated interest” are all factors schools consider as part of the admission process. In fact, test scores rank just below school performance and teacher recommendations in importance.

Either the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) or the Secondary School Admissions Exam (SSAT) is typically required for admission. Since some schools will only accept either the ISEE or the SSAT, it is important to check with each school to confirm what test to take. In general, however, the ISEE tends to be the preferred test for students seeking admission to lower grades while the SSAT is preferred for 9-12th graders applying to an independent or private secondary school.

Aptitude versus Achievement

The ISEE and SSAT are not like the tests your child is used to taking in school. Both are primarily aptitude or ability tests rather than achievement tests. Students are used to tests that assess their knowledge of a specific curriculum or other learning characteristics like motivation or creativity, but the ISEE and SSAT are different. The SSAT only evaluates “basic skills that are important to learning in the academic context.” While the ISEE, according to the Educational Records Bureau, measures “a student’s capability for learning” as well as an “individual’s strengths and weaknesses” in reading comprehension and mathematics achievement. Although that may sound scary, the structure of the test is a challenge students can prepare for with proper instruction and practice.

A Different Way to Score

The way the ISEE and SSAT are scored also differs significantly from most tests. Unlike school exams or college admissions tests, percentile rank rather than a specific score is what matters most. Percentile rank compares prospective students to peers in their grade, so your son or daughter will be compared to a small cohort of the country’s brightest students who already attend private schools. That’s why most students start out with disappointing middling scores.

A score in the 50th percentile seems discouraging at first, but don’t worry. By answering just a few more questions correctly, your child could go from scoring in the 61st percentile to the 77th percentile. That is why test prep is critical. By learning test-taking strategies, developing skills like math and vocabulary knowledge, and practicing with real test questions, students can move up the ranks and closer to your expectations.

So what is a good score? Drew Heilpern points out that “each school determines its own standards for what are considered strong SSAT or ISEE scores.” So it is important to “contact school admissions offices to determine how competitive your student’s scores are.” There is also some information available online. For example, TestInnovators has ISEE and SSAT pages that highlight score guidelines for schools across the country, including for states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Scheduling Standardized Tests

To maximize their scores, students can take both the ISEE and SSAT multiple times. The ISEE can be taken once every four month testing season for a maximum of three tests per calendar year. Students can take the SSAT up to eight times each year; however, it is usually best to take it 2-3 times in the late fall close to admission deadlines. Both tests also offer alternative testing dates in smaller settings for those interested in fitting in one more test outside offered dates or prefer a testing environment that reduce anxiety.

Accommodations for Learning Differences

If your child needs accommodations for learning differences, there are testing options for both the ISEE and SSAT. Students must have documented learning differences (e.g. IEP, Section 504 Accommodation Plan, Testing Evaluation results, etc.) and must apply separately to the Enrollment Management Association (EMA) that oversees the SSAT and the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) that oversees the ISEE to guarantee approval. Once you are approved, it is valid for the either for the whole testing season (SSAT) or for 15 months (ISEE). Some common accommodations include: 50 percent additional time (SSAT), extended time (ISEE), answer directly in the test booklet, large print test booklet, calculator, personal computer or laptop with spell check for the essay.

Now that you know a little bit more about how what these tests test, how they are scored, and when to take them, next time we will take a closer look at the ISEE and SSAT and explore how to choose the perfect test and test prep plan for your child.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. Our excellent team of tutors can help with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you would like more information, Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware  at are available to answer questions and provide solutions. Please call us at 215-886-9188.


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