Set Your Child Up for Success on the ISEE Exam

As a parent, we know it’s important to you to make the most of your child’s educational experience. There are many advantages to a private school education, including smaller class sizes for more individual attention and more freedom to personalize curriculum to meet students’ needs. Now with public schools scrambling to figure out what the fall will look like with social distancing requirements, many families are turning to private schools that have dialed in the distance learning model or can commit to regular in-person school day classes.

One significant hurdle students face when it comes to private school admissions is the ISEE admissions test. This highly competitive exam can be daunting for students of all grade levels. Professional test preparation support can play a critical role in helping your child develop the skills and confidence to ace the ISEE.

What is the Independent School Entrance Examination?

The Independent School Entrance Examination, also known as the ISEE exam, is a standardized test used as one piece of the private school admissions application. The ISEE exam is administered by the Educational Record Bureau to students applying to private schools across the country.

The ISEE test is broken into individually timed sections, including multiple-choice questions and a written response essay. There are three testing seasons: Fall (August – November), Winter (December – March), and Spring/Summer (April – July). Students can take the ISEE only once per season, but this still allows a student to take the exam multiple times throughout the year. Students may send multiple score reports to schools to demonstrate score improvement over time.

All About the Independent School Entrance Examination

The ISEE exam is a 3-4 hour standardized test comprising the following subject areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Mathematics Achievement, and an essay component. Although the essay is not scored, it is sent to the schools to which the student applies and is considered an important factor in demonstrating a student’s academic abilities. The exam has 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.

The purpose of the ISEE exam is to help admissions officers evaluate candidates with diverse educational backgrounds. The test is designed to measure both aptitude and skill. The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections allow students to showcase critical thinking skills and draw from exposure to language and math concepts. Reading Comprehension, Mathematics Achievement, and the essay portion measure skills developed cumulatively throughout the student’s academic history.

Independent School Entrance Examination Levels

The ISEE exam has four different levels based on the grade level to which a student is applying. The main levels of the test are: Primary (students applying to grades 2-4), Lower (students applying to grades 5-6), Middle (students applying to grades 7-8), and Upper (students applying to grades 9-12). The primary test is broken down into different versions for each grade level. For the Lower, Middle, and Upper levels, all students taking the same level receive the same test.

How is the ISEE Scored?

When considering what constitutes a good score on the ISEE, it’s important to remember that the exam has a highly competitive testing pool. Test-takers are a nationwide group made up of predominantly high-achieving students with strong educational foundations, often coming from private schools.

The scoring is also competitive and designed to separate students across 1st to 99th percentiles. When you receive an official ISEE score report, you will see a Stanine Score, which is a conversion of percentile rankings for each section of the multiple-choice test to a 1-9 range. Given the testing pool, scores in the 50th percentile, or 5th or above stanines, are good for the ISEE exam!

It’s important to note that for each level of the test, students are only scored relative to other students applying for the same grade level for admissions. That means that for a student taking the middle level test, those applying for 7th grade will only be ranked according to how other applicants for 7th grade perform; they are not scored relative to other students taking the same test but applying to 8th grade.

The Independent School Entrance Examination Experience

The ISEE is a multiple-choice timed test, which may be a new experience for many elementary and middle school students taking it. Practice is required for students to get comfortable with the testing style, format, and setting. A big part of any standardized test, and particularly the ISEE, is that it tests students’ ability to perform under pressure!

What does all this mean for your child? First, it’s hard to get a top score! Even students who are used to breezing through academic challenges in school may struggle on the ISEE. Second, it takes real work on fundamental skills, not just testing strategies, to boost scores. A child’s schooling history makes a big difference in their ability to perform well on this test.

Benefits of Private School Prep

Private school students often have an advantage when it comes to ISEE prep. Private schools tend to have a more advanced and homogenous group of students, allowing teachers to spend less time on discipline and more time teaching higher level concepts. Smaller teacher to student ratios allow for more individualized instruction and personal feedback to help students learn from mistakes and adjust their performance. Since private schools aren’t required to teach to state tests, there is more freedom for teachers to modify the curriculum and provide accelerated instruction to more advanced students. Just because private school students have an advantage, though, does not mean that it’s impossible for public school students to excel on the ISEE. Both private and public school students can benefit from professional test prep support.

The Role of Professional Test Preparation Support

Test prep focused on academic skill-building can help close gaps and give students confidence. Becoming familiar with the test itself and working to strengthen specific skills from the test make a big difference in student success. At La Jolla LearningWorks, ISEE test prep is a highly individualized process that we have spent over a decade fine-tuning. We know what it really takes to improve your scores – and how much improvement you can expect.

Based on data from over ten years of students that have taken advantage of our ISEE test prep services, we know that 2-3 stanines of improvement is a very good result! On average, it takes 16 hours of instruction to improve 1-3 stanines in each section. Everyone wants to believe there is a quick fix for success, but the truth is that it takes hard work and dedication on the part of the student to make progress.

Improvement depends on the student’s commitment to practicing the material outside of sessions and their willingness to use the strategies they learn. Ideally, students should begin test preparation a year in advance in order to address specific areas of weakness, especially for students with starting scores 4 or below and/or with known learning challenges.


The ISEE is highly competitive, and for some students it might even be their introduction to standardized testing. Professional test preparation support like we offer at La Jolla LearningWorks can play a key role in your child’s success. Our experienced and caring educators work one-on-one with students to identify areas for improvement, set achievable goals, and develop skills. We are currently offering virtual test prep via Zoom. The earlier your child starts, the more time they will have to improve their scores and confidence before the exam, so connect with us today.

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!