Everything You Need to Know About the ISEE Test

You’re probably familiar with standardized tests like the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT—but what about the ISEE? Many elite private schools require scores from the ISEE test as part of the admissions process. In this post, we’ll answer your burning questions about the ISEE, from “What is a good ISEE score?” to “How important is the ISEE test in the admission process?” and more. We’ll also share preparation tips for an anxiety-free testing experience.

What Is the ISEE Test?

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination) is a standardized test administered by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) and contains three levels: ISEE Lower Level for 5th and 6th grade applicants, ISEE Middle Level for 7th and 8th grade applicants, and ISEE Upper Level for 9th through 12th grade applicants.

All levels include the following subject areas in this order: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement. There is also an essay component. The essay is not scored, however, a copy is sent to the schools to which the applicant is applying and is an important factor in demonstrating the student’s academic abilities.

Who Needs to Take the ISEE Test?

So, how do you know if your child needs to take the ISEE test? Many of the top private schools in San Diego—including The Bishop’s School, Francis Parker School, La Jolla Country Day (LJCDS), and Pacific Ridge School—require the ISEE. Most schools’ websites include an Admissions page that features information about the admissions process and the materials students are required to submit when they apply. You can also get in touch with the school’s Admissions department via email or phone to ask about testing.

How Long Is the ISEE Test?

The ISEE Lower Level is 2 hours and 30 minutes long. Both the ISEE Middle Level and the ISEE Upper Level are 2 hours and 50 minutes long. All three levels include two 5-minute breaks, one after the Quantitative Reasoning section and one after the Mathematics Achievement section. During breaks, students may have a snack, stretch their legs, use the restroom, or talk—as long as it’s not about the test!

What Is a Good ISEE Score?

First, let’s talk about how the ISEE is scored. Students receive a raw score based on how many questions they answer correctly. Keep in mind that no points are deducted for incorrect answers. Raw scores are then converted into scaled scores for each section, which range from 760 to 940. Scaled scores are accompanied by percentile ranks, which indicate how well the student did relative to other students applying for the same grade level that took the same level of ISEE test within the past three years.

Next, each percentile rank is converted into “stanines”, scores ranging from 1 to 9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 being the highest. These stanine scores are what admissions committees focus on. A stanine of 5 is considered average among the elite group of ISEE test-takers.

From there, the question “What is a good ISEE score?” is best answered by researching the specific school(s) to which the student is applying. Some schools may provide this information on the Admissions page of their website, or they may offer information about the average ISEE stanine achieved by their most recent admitted classes of students.

We always encourage families we support through the private school admissions process here at La Jolla Learning to attend local private school open houses and other admissions events to ask questions like these to each specific school.

How Important Is the ISEE Test?

ISEE scores are just one piece of the student’s application, along with their transcripts, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, and interviews. Most schools recognize that even very smart and high-achieving students may not test well, and transcripts may be able to demonstrate mastery of a given subject area despite a low score on the ISEE.

Additionally, each section of the test is scored separately, so a high score in one section may make up for a low score in another. In some cases, a good ISEE score can compensate for an applicant’s less-than-stellar grades. Moreover, when two applicants with otherwise similar profiles are evaluated by admissions committees, the applicant with the higher ISEE score has a strong advantage.


The main deciding factor when it comes to whether your child should take the ISEE vs. SSAT is the preference of the school(s) to which they’re applying. If the school(s) accept either, it’s important to know the key differences between the two tests.

  • As we’ve already discussed, there is no penalty for wrong answers on the ISEE. On the SSAT, ¼ of a point is deducted for each wrong answer.
  • The ISEE offers more options for test dates, but students can only take it once every six months, which is an important consideration when it comes to application deadlines. The SSAT is only offered eight times per year, but there is no limit to how soon you can retake it.
  • The ISEE has a more difficult math section and an easier reading/writing component. The SSAT is easier when it comes to math, and more difficult when it comes to reading and writing.
  • While the essays are unscored for both tests, the ISEE requires students to write an expository essay. The SSAT requires students at the Middle level to choose between two creative writing prompts, and students at the Upper level to choose between a creative essay and an expository essay.

Tips for Taking the ISEE Stress-Free

  • Testing anxiety can often come from fear of the unknown. You’ve already taken a step in the right direction by reading this post and familiarizing yourself and your child with the different subject areas, duration, and scoring of the test. The more your child knows what to expect on testing day, the more confident they will feel.
  • Keep in mind that ISEE scores are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to private school admissions. That’s not to say that scores aren’t important, but over-emphasizing the importance of test scores (especially if your child has anxiety around testing!) may heighten their anxiety and be detrimental to their ability to concentrate during test prep and and on the exam itself.
  • If your child has learning disabilities, visit the ERB’s website to understand which accommodations your child may be eligible for and how to request accommodations in advance of the test date.
  • Practice makes perfect! Taking an ISEE practice test or two will ease your child’s mind by preparing them for the format of the test and the types of questions they are likely to encounter. You can also identify gaps and weaknesses ahead of time and target those areas specifically while studying.


We offer individualized one-on-one ISEE test prep, including ISEE practice tests, personalized learning plans, and regular updates on your child’s progress. We help students develop skills and test-taking strategies so they can go into standardized tests with confidence. Give us a call to find out how we can set your child up for success.

Looking for More Support?

Our programs are designed to complement the student’s classroom curriculum and supplement any necessary instruction through individual attention. Whether it be test prep, learning difficulties, or academic advising, our team of experienced and trained educators will support you and your child every step of the way.

Schedule a free consultation today to get started!