Which test should I take, the SSAT or the ISEE?

Every summer, families around the country begin the private high school application process. Families must decide whether to apply to parochial schools or secular independent schools, boarding schools or day schools, or a combination of several different varieties of private schools. For the 7th or 8th grade students in these families, one of the most stressful parts of the private school application process is having to take standardized tests.

For many adults, especially those who attended public schools for their own education, standardized tests were an obstacle in the college admissions process. Unlike public high schools which generally admit every rising 9th grade student who lives within the school district, private schools are selective, only admitting students who meet their individual admissions criteria. Similar to those considered by universities, these criteria often include academic success, athletic or artistic achievement, legacy connections, and cultural fit. Another factor is standardized test scores.

Private high schools may consider one or more of the three most common high school admittance tests: the SSAT, the ISEE, or the HSPT. Overall, these three different tests, each produced by a different organization, cover relatively similar material: reading, vocabulary, math skills, and a writing sample. The details of how these topics are tested vary slightly, but the knowledge based is generally the same. The biggest differences between these standardized tests are often found in the structure of each test. Another smaller difference is which schools utilize which test for admissions.

The SSAT, created and administered by a non-profit organization of the same name, is primarily utilized by secular independent schools, although academically rigorous parochial schools may also utilize the SSAT for admissions. The SSAT is administered eight times per school year at independent schools across the world, plus one additional flex testing at any number of local testing centers, and students sign up to take the test through the SSAT website. SSAT encourages students to take the test multiple times.

There are three levels of SSAT: lower, middle, and upper. The lower level is for students applying for admission in 3rd or 4th grade. The middle level is for students applying for admission in 5th, 6th, or 7th grade. The upper level is for students applying for admission for 8th grade or at the high school level.

The upper level SSAT currently takes approximately three hours to complete and consists of six sections: Reading Comprehension, Verbal (vocabulary), two math sections, an unscored experimental section, and an unscored writing sample. The test is scored on a scale of 1500-2400, but the percentiles associated with those scores are far more important in the admissions process. Since students can take the SSAT as many times as they would like, independent schools tend to consider only the best result.

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) was created and is administered by ERB, a non-profit which also administers annual progress testing for independent schools similar to the state testing public school students take every year. The ISEE is utilized by both independent day schools and independent boarding schools throughout the United States for admissions. Students may take the ISEE only once per “testing season”. The ISEE defines a “testing season” as a three-month period covering August through November, December through March, or April through July. While a student can take the ISEE more than once, ERB strongly discourages students from doing so. Students can take the ISEE at either one of the schools to which the students are applying or at a testing center in an office park. Since ERB organizes the administration of the ISEE in four-month seasons, test dates are flexible, depending on the environment in which the test is administered.

The ISEE has four levels. The primary level is for 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade. The lower level is for students applying for admission in 5th or 6th grade. The middle level is for students applying for admission in 7th or 8th grade. The upper level is for students applying for admission for the high school level.

The upper level ISEE takes approximately two hours and 45 minutes to complete and consists of five sections: Reading Comprehension, Verbal Reasoning (vocabulary), a math question section, a math comparisons section, and an unscored essay. Each multiple choice section of the ISEE is scored on a scale of 760-940, but the percentile results, which are summarized in a single digit result known as a stanine, are far more important to the high school admissions process.

The High School Placement Test (HSPT) is administered by the Scholastic Testing Service (STS), a for-profit corporation which creates, publishes, and administers a series of public school state tests and private school yearly assessments. While HSPT is available for use by independent schools, it is mostly utilized for admission by parochial schools, especially Catholic high schools. STS either sells or leases the HSPT to parochial schools, and each school has its own unique testing date for applicants to that school. Consequently, a student applying to multiple Catholic high schools may end up taking the HSPT several times throughout the application process. Additionally, schools can choose to administer a static version of the test set up by STS or they can lease different sections of the HSPT and re-order the sections as they see fit. In this way, many Catholic high school advertise that they have their “own” admissions test different from any other school’s test.

In addition to the expected reading, vocabulary, and math sections, the HSPT can include sections in grammar, science, and the Catholic religion. No scaled scores are reported to parents or students. Instead, the official score report only shows the percentiles that the student earned in relation to other test takers. Unlike the other two tests, an essay or writing sample is not included in the HSPT. Individual schools, however, may require students to complete a writing sample provided by the school.

The creators of the three most common high school admittance tests, the SSAT, the ISEE, and the HSPT, have put in a great deal of effort to differentiate their offerings to independent and parochial schools. From a student’s perspective, however, there is a lot less difference between the tests. In order to achieve percentile results that will be helpful in the admission process, students must build strong reading, vocabulary, and math skills. Additionally, test taking and problem solving techniques are useful in interpreting questions and solving challenging assignments. Since the three tests are more alike than different, which test a school requires should not be a deciding factor in choosing to apply to a particular school or not.

About the Author

Jason Breitkopf, MA.  is the Director of Faculty at Chyten Premier Tutoring.