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ISEE or SSAT? Choose Wisely...

Many theories abound about which test is easier or which is weighted more favorably by schools, but there is little evidence to back up these hypotheses. So, how do parents make an informed choice about which test will be better for their student?
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This post was co-authored by Director of Standardized Test Preparation Michael Bergen

The process of selecting, visiting, applying to and interviewing at independent and boarding schools is intimidating enough; add to that choosing between and preparing for the ISEE and SSAT, and it becomes downright nerve-wracking. Many theories abound about which test is easier or which is weighted more favorably by schools, but there is little evidence to back up these hypotheses. So, how do parents make an informed choice about which test will be better for their student? The most important consideration is probably not the content of the respective tests, but how the student will handle the psychological and strategic challenges of each test.

The ISEE and SSAT share several similarities but are ultimately rather different tests. Both tests are roughly the same length and feature five comparable sections in verbal skills, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, math achievement and writing. Each one's verbal test contains out-of-context vocabulary questions; the other half of the ISEE is in-context vocabulary, while the SSAT instead tests analogies. Neither test scores its writing sample, opting instead to send these directly to the schools to which the student applies. Different versions of the ISEE and SSAT are given depending on the student's grade level. The SSAT gives a "lower" test to students applying for entrance up to 7th grade and an "upper" test for students applying to 8th grade or high school, while the ISEE splits its test three ways into lower (applying to 5th and 6th), middle (applying to 7th and 8th), and upper (applying to 9th - 12th) tests. And, most frustrating to parents and students, neither test releases much practice material. The ISEE has created a guide (titled "What to Expect on the ISEE", which you can download for free from the Educational Records Bureau's website), and the SSAT has a few free practice problems for free on its website and a guide you can order for $35, but neither has the wealth of practice resources you would find for the SAT or ACT.

Similarities aside, the differences between these two tests are significant and hard to ignore. Many have drawn parallels between the ISEE and the ACT and the SSAT and SAT. The ISEE, like the ACT, does not penalize guessing, meaning that a wrong answer and an omitted answer are weighed exactly the same. The ISEE is also widely viewed as the more straightforward test, focusing more on the depth of its content (especially in mathematics) than on the creative presentation of its questions. The SSAT, on the other hand, subtracts one-quarter of a point for each incorrect answer, meaning students must be more strategic about their guessing. The SSAT also demands that the student think more creatively, utilizing unconventional word problems, analogies, and various types of passages from nonfiction, fiction, and poetry (the ISEE's reading is comprised of nonfiction only). While the SSAT may be retaken a number of times, the ISEE may only be taken once in each admissions cycle (and must coincide with outstanding applications to prevent students from taking the test early for practice). And then there are the scoring differences: the SSAT gives scores between 440 and 710 for lower and 500 and 800 for upper on verbal, reading, and math; the ISEE gives scores between 760 and 940 on verbal, reading, quantitative reasoning, and math achievement. More scrutinized for the ISEE, though, are the stanines -- scores from 1 to 9 which indicate in which percentile the student has fallen.

Of all the considerations when choosing between the ISEE and SSAT, the psychological issues loom largest. If your student has a history of significant test anxiety, the SSAT is likely the better choice; in a study by psychologist William Davidson, 80% of students said their test anxiety was reduced when they knew they had the option to retake a similar test, and over 50% of those who did retest saw a significant score improvement. On the other hand, if your student is risk-averse, his score would compare poorly to risk-neutral or risk-positive students on tests which penalize incorrect answers, according to a study by Maria Paz Espinosa. In this instance, the ISEE is a better fit because the student can guess without trepidation when he has a strong inclination toward an answer. You should also consider your student's strengths; the SSAT reports scores on two verbal and one quantitative test, while the ISEE score is made up of half verbal and half math scores. Accordingly, students who feel stronger with language gravitate toward the SSAT and those who feel stronger in math tend to take the ISEE.

Of course, the most important factor of all is preparation. Make sure your student knows what to expect and realizes that this test is only a part of the admissions process. While you won't eliminate the anxiety of applying to schools, feeling confident about the test you have chosen should make the road to high school a bit smoother.