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ISEE Fact and Fiction: What Every Parent Should Know

By July 27, 2017April 8th, 2022ISEE / SSAT / HSPT


Each year, I have the privilege of giving a presentation to 5th and 6th grade parents at the UCLA Lab School. As a guest ‘testing expert,’ I am asked to speak about the testing component of independent school admission – the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE).

Having worked extensively with secondary school-bound families for the past several years, I understand how much confusion and anxiety that standardized testing can yield. For many students, the ISEE marks their first experience with a high-stakes exam that has a real, foreseeable impact on their educational choices. Parents’ nerves are further frayed by competition for limited spaces at the most coveted private schools.

This post will demystify the ISEE – separating fact from fiction and providing sound advice for test preparation. After reading, I hope your anxieties are assuaged and that you are able to transmit this calm to your children.

A Quick Reality Check

Before getting into the nuances of the ISEE, I want to start by saying that a successful performance on the test is chiefly tied to a student’s academic foundation in school, not an intensive test prep course or a surplus of private tutoring. Unlike college admission tests like the SAT and ACT, which contain material that most students have covered in their coursework (or can efficiently learn), the ISEE is meant to assess a short band of academic skills that are cumulative in nature, and thus, less coachable. For instance, the Reading Comprehension section of the exam is designed to assess a child’s reading fluency and comprehension skills, which are steadfastly developed over multiple years of instruction. To say that reading skills can be dramatically ‘beefed up’ with a brief stint of preparation is simply wrong; it completely ignores the abundance of research on child development that confirms the inverse.

It is also essential to note that the ISEE is one facet of a highly nuanced application. Even if a student is not adept at standardized tests, she has the opportunity to shine on the application essays, the interview, school visiting days, teacher recommendations, and other areas. Admission directors are also assessing the fit of prospective parents into the fabric of the school’s community. Top-notch ISEE scores mean very little if the family unit is not a cultural match for the school.

If families can take heart in the excellent education their children have received thus far – and the expert intuition of admission directors – half the ISEE battle is already won.

Composition of the Test

The specific concepts covered on the exam are too cumbersome to explain in this format, so I should begin by saying that nearly everything in this section is reviewed in greater depth on the test-maker’s website (erblearn.org).

The Educational Records Bureau (ERB), the producer of the ISEE, also offers a free downloadable guide entitled ‘What to Expect on the ISEE’ for each level of the exam it administers. If you want to dive into the thick of concepts tested, I strongly recommend downloading the guide. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more digestible, start with this post and do further reading at your leisure.

Levels of the ISEE

There are currently four versions or ‘Levels’ of the ISEE that are administered based on the grade to which a student is applying. Applicants to grades 2 through 4 sit for the Primary Level exam, applicants to grades 5 and 6 sit for the Lower Level exam, applicants to grades 7 and 8 sit for the Middle Level exam, and applicants to grades 9 through 12 sit for the Upper Level exam.

Because many of the popular independent secondary schools in Los Angeles begin in 7th grade, I will examine the composition of the Middle Level test in this post. The Lower and Upper Levels of the exam are similar to the Middle Level test in overall format and length – the Lower Level is slightly shorter; the Upper Level is slightly longer – but all three levels vary in rigor and are engineered for differently-aged testers.

Test Structure and Length

The Lower, Middle, and Upper Level tests are comprised of 4 scored, multiple-choice sections followed by an unscored, hand-written essay. Two of the multiple-choice sections assess verbal reasoning and reading skills, while the other two measure proficiency in math reasoning and knowledge of specific concepts. Here is a table that reviews the structure and timing of the Middle Level test:


As you’ve probably gathered from the table, the most daunting element of the ISEE is its length. Apart from annual benchmark assessments like the CTPs or STAR testing, it is unlikely that a young student has had a comparable testing experience. Bake in the unfamiliar testing environment, the unusual format of test items, and the fast pacing of the exam, and you have a recipe for mental fatigue and stress. Fortunately, these are problems that can be mitigated by sensible test preparation, which I will address a little later.

Scoring the ISEE

There is nothing more bedeviling than attempting to explain ISEE scoring. Even after having reviewed dozens of score reports, chatting directly with reps at the ERB, and giving multiple presentations on the topic, I find myself stammering through technical terms like ‘raw score’, ‘scaled score,’ ‘percentile rank,’ and ‘stanine.’ All of these terms are importantly related and, when understood, shed light on the thoughtful design of the test; however, I’ve found that for instructional purposes, most parents don’t need to know the minutia. As far as students are concerned, there is little to be gained from discussing scoring. These conversations only amplify anxiety and leave our kids with unrealistic expectations for performance.

Here is how I would explain scoring in its simplest terms:

Based on the number of multiple-choice questions that students answer correctly, they are assigned a percentile rank from 1 to 99. For instance, if a student receives a percentile rank of ‘65’ on Verbal Reasoning, it means that she performed equal to or better than 65% of test-takers in her cohort. This cohort, also referred to as the norm group, is comprised of the most recent three years of test-takers for the same exam level. The norm group is further refined to applicants applying to the same grade.

Percentile ranks are then grouped into 9 percentile ranges known as stanines. The ERB created the 9-point stanine system to help admission directors parse out meaningful differences in students’ scores. By collapsing percentile ranks into a single stanine, the ERB is stating that students within the same stanine have roughly commensurate math or verbal ability. For instance, in the eyes of an admission director, students who receive a stanine of 5 – regardless of where they fall in the stanine/percentile continuum of 40 – 59 – are equally capable test-takers and evaluated similarly. Without the stanine system, admission directors would be forced to make judgment calls about minute differences in percentile ranks, 1 through 99, which are not as meaningful.

I’ve included a table below that shows how percentile ranks and stanines are distributed annually:


With this data in mind, it is clear that the majority of students who take the ISEE fall into the stanine range of 4 to 6 (54%), while the minority fall into the stanine ranges of 1 to 3 (23%) and 7 to 9 (23%). It is also helpful to point out that the highest stanines are attained by a miniscule fraction of test-takers. Nationwide, only 4% of students obtain a 9, while a marginal 7% of test-takers are awarded an 8.

This distribution of scores stays the same each year, and the ERB perennially tests new questions on students to ensure that the same percentage of incorrect and correct answers are produced on test day.

When chatting with parents, I emphasize the rarity of high stanines, because it helps re-orient their expectations of their children. In my experience, perfectly capable, intelligent, private school-ready students score in the 4 to 6 stanine range and are admitted to top schools year after year. In fact, directors of admission seek out these students to build balanced incoming classes. 7’s, 8’s, and 9’s are certainly impressive, but schools understand that these performances are not typical of the average applicant, nor is it necessary that all admitted students share the same propensity for testing.

Why Is the ISEE So Difficult?

Standardized tests like the ISEE can feel like an affront to our educational worldviews, particularly when we are told that no amount of studying or extra effort can guarantee a top score. As I mentioned earlier, the ISEE is engineered to award the same percentage of scores to students annually – only a combined 23% of test-takers can obtain a 7, 8, or 9.

Unlike the ISEE, the tests that our children take in school are not designed to codify them into ability groups. Unit tests, for example, measure a student’s mastery of concepts within the larger context of a curriculum. The teacher rejoices when his class averages a 95% on the test, because it proves that his students have learned the concepts and are ready for more complex problem-solving. The unit test’s purpose is to measure mastery of a discrete academic skill, not to rank students or make predictions about capability. Furthermore, there is no limit to the number of students who can achieve a perfect score or an ‘A’ on a unit test.

To make matters murkier, the ISEE contains some math and verbal material that is intended to go far beyond most students’ comprehension. The fact that older and younger peers are administered the same version of the test should be your first indication of the ISEE’s inherent difficulty. A 6th grader taking the Middle Level exam may not be aware that the test is also designed to be a challenge for 7th grade students. Consequently, she may balk at the advanced content, become anxious, and wrongfully presume that her skills are less developed than her peers’ skills. Although it may sound counterintuitive, a large part of prep for the ISEE involves priming students for the experience of treading outside their academic depths.

What the ISEE Measures

After learning about the complexity of the test and the truths of its design, the natural question emerges, ‘What does the ISEE really measure?’ The ERB’s official statement on the topic is as follows:

“The ISEE consists of carefully constructed and standardized verbal and quantitative reasoning tests that measure a student’s capability for learning, and reading comprehension and mathematics achievement tests that provide specific information about an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas.”

‘Capability’ is a loaded word. After many years of reviewing ISEE scores and tracking hundreds of students’ outcomes in secondary school, I can say with certainty that the exam – as an isolated variable – is not a reliable predictor of ability or scholastic success. Because the ISEE testing population is so young and inexperienced, they are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of standardized testing. Many students don’t know how to cope with an exam that is so speeded, mentally strenuous, and peppered with unusual question formats.

With this in mind, the goal of preparation should be to offset the influence of test-taking stressors so that students can perform to their potential on the big day.

Sensible ISEE Preparation

As it was mentioned earlier, because the bulk of ISEE content engages skills that students have developed over years, test prep should be less about lifting an academic base and more about the inculcation of testing skills. The most successful tutoring and classroom instruction hone a student’s pacing on the exam, habituate her to the question types that will appear on the ISEE, provide coping skills to manage anxiety, and advise her on the precise range of questions that are developmentally appropriate for her to answer. The ISEE does not penalize students for guessing on questions, so it is in their interest to fill out all of the bubbles on their test booklet before time is up; however, this should not come at the expense of rushing through the test and making careless mistakes on questions within a student’s wheelhouse.

In sum, smart ISEE preparation cultivates test-taking savvy and helps students to anticipate the unfamiliar format and content of the exam. Instruction that is focused on the mastery of advanced concepts – especially those outside a student’s academic bandwidth – is imbalanced and will likely do more harm than good.

Multiple Test Dates

Since August of 2016, students are able to register and sit for up to three official ISEE administrations. Historically, test takers could only take the ISEE once per admission cycle, which put a ton of pressure on students to perform to potential on a single day. ERB recognized the acute anxiety its ‘one and done’ policy engendered, so multiple testing opportunities are designed to:

    • Guard against the likelihood of having a ‘bad day.’ We often hear stories about the student who is sick on test day and significantly underperforms.
    • Allow families to selectively submit test scores to schools. Depending on test results, students may want to submit their entire portfolio of test scores, or, just submit their test scores form a single administration. Students are NOT able to individually send their highest section scores per test date.

When Will I Receive My Scores?

For students who take the exam on paper (recommended by Compass):

Families can access scores online (2-3 days) if they pay $40 for ‘expedited scoring’ – this option is availed during the online registration process.

If you don’t pay for expedited online scoring, you may access your online report within 7 days after the test.

For students who take the exam on a computer at a Prometric site (not recommended by Compass): 

Scores are available online immediately after the test is graded (2-3 days after the test administration). This is the only upside of computer-based testing; many students balk at the foreign computer-based testing format.

When do schools receive ISEE score reports?

If a family opts to have their scores automatically submitted to schools (families can select as many schools as they’d like), they are typically accessible to school staff 2-3 days following the test date.

If families do not wish to have their scores automatically submitted, they can review their scores, determine which test administrations they’d like to submit, and send those results to as many schools as they’d like free of charge. Electronic submission is instant.

Moving Forward

For more information about test preparation options, please review our ISEE services page. If you have further questions, please connect with a Compass director at (800) 685-6986, or, email me directly at matty@compassprep.com.

Thank you for reading and best of luck to your children as they tackle the ISEE. By having an informed, balanced perspective on the ISEE, you will better position your students to perform to their potential and secure admission to schools that match the needs of your family.

Matty Steiner

Prior to joining Compass, Matty obtained their MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from UC Santa Cruz. They have over a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, having worked as an instructor, consultant, and keynote speaker on the topic of admission testing.


  • prathik says:

    Hi, my ISSE middle level exam is on computer and is taking place on Monday, July 29, 2019. I am coming from a public school and am now entering 7th grade. I was wondering if my public school teachers would have to give feedback on me for me to get into the school. for example, you wrote that teacher recommendation is needed, so does that mean I can only go to my new private school if my old public school teachers gives feedback on me. Or how does it work? Thank You! I am trying to get into the school in Edison, New Jersey, the schools name is Wardlaw Hartridge.

    • Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi Prathik,
      To find out if you need a teacher recommendation, you should check with the schools you’re applying to (some require it and some don’t.) If you can’t find the information on their website, you can try calling the admissions office. Good luck!

  • Veronica says:

    Hi Matt,

    My daughter just took the Middle Level ISEE recently, and we found out that she received a score of 7,9,7,8. However, we are applying to very competitive NYC schools such as Chapin and Brearley. Will these scores be enough to be accepted?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Veronica,

      My apologies for the delayed reply. Your daughter’s scores are terrific, and I’m fairly certain that they’ll “check the box” in satisfying the testing requirements for competitive secondary schools in NYC (even Chapin and Brearley). That said, we’d be happy to take a closer look at the score report and see if there’s any room for improvement. Why don’t you give our local office a call at: 800.369.3011. Thanks!

  • Tina says:

    Hi Matt, thank you for great article!
    My daughter takes ERB at her school yearly and thinking about taking the ISEE soon. there are three norm groups on the ERB report, national, suburban, independent school. Which norm would be comparable to the ISEE report? I want to get a rough idea of where she stands for the ISEE tests.
    Thank you!

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Tina,

      Before answering your question, please keep in mind that the norm group for the ISEE is differently composed (and more competitive) than the norm group for ERB’s annual benchmark assessments: the CTPs (stanines and percentiles tend to be inflated on CTPs relative to the ISEE). That said, you’ll want to pay closer attention to the ‘independent school’ reference population on your ERB report. These are the kiddos who are most likely to sit for the ISEE and continue their education at independent schools.

  • Janice A says:

    My daughter is applying late to a few schools (sudden military move) and two of the schools are fairly competitive (most selective in the area, but not a NYC or LA level of competition) but do not have any spaces, so my daughter will be put on the wait “list” if she qualifies. It was clear to me that if she is more competitive than the others on the wait list, she will be bumped up (for grade 9). She took the ISEE Saturday with no preparation (we just found out about the move). She received a 6,8,8,8. The 6 was due to a poor score in the first section (synonyms) but got a perfect score in RC vocabulary. Do you think these scores would be very competitive in that type of school? She has all As, in advanced classes. I understand the admissions process is holistic; I’m just asking about the scores as I am unfamiliar with them aside from what I read on your blog. I am so surprised one wrong can give you an 8!! Does a 95 vs a 89 percent give extra “points.”? The 8s were 90,92.95 percentiles.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Janice,

      I don’t have a bird’s eye view at the admission offices that will be reviewing your daughter’s application, but I can say that your daughter’s ISEE scores are exceptional (even with the slightly deflated 6 on Verbal Reasoning). As I mentioned in my article, students within the same stanine – regardless of small differences in percentiles – are judged to have commensurate abilities. In my near decade of experience, I’ve never heard of an admission director admitting one student over another because of incremental percentile differences (i.e. 95 vs. 89). This is due in part to the understanding that the tests are imperfect, and a student is likely to score within a band of stanines and percentile ranges from administration to administration.

  • DonnaS says:

    Hi Matt! This article is tremendously helpful. Question, and perhaps you answered it: what are Compass’s reasons for recommending the paper and pencil version over the computer version of the ISEE?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Donna,

      As I mentioned in my article, the computer-based testing format is often foreign to most students who are used to preparing for- and completing exams on paper. Additionally, Prometric testing centers are open to testers for a number of computer-based assessments, including the GRE (for graduate school). Sitting in a room full of unfamiliar adults can put unnecessary stress on an elementary or middle school-age student. I’d avoid this risk by registering for paper and pencil testing.

  • Sam says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is the best site I’ve ever seen about the ISEE and it’s scoring system. I have a question. My son is currently in 4th grade and needed to take “lower level” test for candidate 5th and 6th in 2017-18 academic year. My son told me during the test, he faced with many questions he has never seen them before. I think it’s because the lower level test is not only for 5th but also for 6th as well. He had no idea how to find the answer. Obviously, he didn’t get good result (5,6,6,6). In this case, can the result be considered good and converted to somewhat equivalent to 8 or above because he’s only 4th grade? It’s unfair that both 4th and 5th grade students take the same test and obviously 5th grade could get better score but there is no explanation whatsoever in test result about the student is taking the test that’s beyond his current knowledge. Thank you in advance.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Sam!

      To clarify, even though the Lower Level test is administered to current 4th and 5th grade students, a student’s results are derived via comparison to the performance of same-aged peers. 4th graders are compared to 4th graders. 5th graders are compared to 5th graders. And so on.

      Second, your son’s results, 5,6,6,6, are strong and will likely meet the testing standards for most admission offices.

  • Concerned parent says:

    Our 8th grade boy just tested with no prep.
    He gets decent grades in school but unfortunately was not able to take Algebra 1 as an 8th grader as he was home-schooled for a couple of years. The math teacher said he did not feel he was gifted in math and the school administration sided with the teacher. He is socially ackward sometimes at school because he gets bored in class.

    He took the upper level test and scored (5,9,9,9) the 5 being in verbal reasoning.

    Being 13 years old do you feel the public school is holding him back by not letting him take a class he should?

    We just want the best for him.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hello there! Admittedly, this is not a question I am qualified to answer. I also don’t fully understand your school’s protocol for placement into advanced math courses.

      If possible, I’d love to see a copy of the score report and review the questions that your son answered correctly and incorrectly. Would you mind shooting me an email?: matt@compassprep.com

  • Paula Alyce Scully says:

    for a child that did not study for the ISEE and received a 4 5 4 6 for candidate for grade 8 for a competitive school, and the school is aware that there was zero prep time, how are will these scores be received?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Paula,

      You can rest assured that your child’s scores will not ring any alarm bells for directors of admission at most schools. Unless you are only applying to highly academic, traditional middle schools that place a premium on ISEE scores, those scores should satisfy the testing requirements for most programs.

  • James says:

    How does one interpret scores of V-3 R-1 Q-3 M-3 for a 5th grader going into 6th grade? We’ve known she struggles with test taking, anxiety and rushes, however the 1 in Reading Comprehension has us very concerned. Teachers have never shown us any concerns and we’ve asked in years past.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi James,

      I understand how anxiety-provoking a depressed ISEE score can be. I, myself, was a horrendous test-taker, and I always tested poorly relative to my stellar academic performance in school.

      It’s always important to get multiple perspectives before jumping to any conclusions about your daughter’s ability. It’s a good sign that her teachers have never expressed concern about her performance in school, but maybe it’s worth a more direct check-in with her current teacher(s). Also, is it possible that your daughter simply had a ‘bad day’ or didn’t take the exam as seriously as she should have? If you’re still stumped after chatting with both your daughter and her teachers, it may be worth pursuing a more thorough educational assessment with your child’s school district or a private evaluator. If you need guidance on this front, please feel free to email me: matt@compassprep.com.

  • Kathy says:

    Hi Matt!

    I have no experience at all with private schooling or ISEE Testing. My son is currently in 5th grade at a public school. He does really well in school, so well in fact that we decided that a private school might be a better place for him to be. We did very little prep before testing and he received 5 4 4 4. I feel like that might not be good enough for the schools that he’s applying to based on what I’ve been reading about other peoples scores. I just want to get an idea of what your thoughts are about retesting him or not. Any insight would be helpful.


    • Matt Steiner says:

      My apologies for the delay, Kathy. I imagine you’re getting pretty close to your application deadlines.

      First, try and resist the temptation to listen to hearsay about ISEE scores. For every conversation I’ve heard about a student ‘not getting in’ in spite of near perfect scores, I’ve heard similar anecdotes about low-scoring students who are admitted to top programs. That said, I certainly don’t think your son’s test scores are ‘low.’ They’re squarely average among the highly competitive cohort of ISEE test-takers. I know ‘average’ has some sting attached to it; but in testing terms, it’s a good thing.

      At this juncture, I would go ahead and submit your son’s current scores with the rest of his applications. If there’s a place on your applications to safely air your concerns about the ISEE – to explain that the results don’t align with your son’s academic history nor the perceptions of his teachers – please do so. I don’t think you need to commit to another test date after applications are due.

  • PJ says:

    My daughter took the SSAT and ISEE but because ISEE doesn’t give a total percentile, I can’t tell which is better. She got 78 percentile on SSAT, and 8,6,7,5 on ISEE. Which should I send?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi PJ,

      Unfortunately, there is not a formal concordance that exists that allows us to compare ISEE and SSAT scores. At face value, the stanines you listed appear to be mostly in line with your daughter’s total SSAT percentile/score. If I was in your shoes, I would call an admission officer, express your concerns about the different scores, and ask their opinion on what to submit.

  • Leon says:

    Hi Matt,

    My 10-year-old took the exam in December this year. She got some medical condition during the third session – we got called by her teacher during the session. She finished the whole 4 sessions but the 3rd and 4th sessions were obviously affected. She got 7 and 9 for the first 2 sessions with 2 6’s for the 3rd and 4th. Is there anything we can help on it? The deadline we are applying for is end of January.

  • Janice says:

    Hi Matt,

    I love your blog! My DD received 9 9 9 8 on the ISEE. She is a straight A student from a public magnet school. We are so nervous with the upcoming admission interview. I hope we don’t screw up on the interview; the whole process is so stressful for us.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Thank you, Janice! Those may be the highest scores I’ve heard reported this entire year! Big kudos to your daughter. 🙂

      I understand how stressful the process can be. Should you need any pointers on your applications or guidance on the interview, I can put you in touch with a school placement specialist. Just shoot me an email: matt@compassprep.com.

  • Josh says:

    Hello Matt.
    Can you please give me your thoughts on the essay on the ISEE. Am I correct that it is not scored rather just reviewed by the Admissions officer? Is there a rubric or any other scale that is used to assess the essay? I am struggling to understand.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Josh!

      You’re right on the money. The essay is unscored, and there is no official rubric that admission officers use for the purpose of evaluation. The value of the essay is determined by each school’s admission office, but generally, I’ve found that essay is mostly ignored and/or deemphasized. Student writing after nearly 3 hours of grueling multiple-choice questions is pretty abysmal (i.e. not reflective of most students’ writing ability). On occasion, I have seen the essay cited as a ‘saving grace’ for a student who completely bombed the multiple choice sections, but who demonstrated exceptional writing skills on the essay. However, this rarely happens at highly selective schools whose admission officers place the greatest value on the multiple choice sections of the ISEE.

  • Jun says:

    Hi, Matt,

    Just wanted to say it’s a great website and have a lot of insights. Thanks you so much for your efforts and have a wonderful holiday!


  • Lynda says:

    My daughter took the test at the beginning of the month at a site for kids who needed accommodations. She was allowed to circle her answers in the book and use graph paper. Her scores, however, were terrible. She has taken a number of standardized tests, IQ tests, ETC and has always scored in the 90th percentile above in verbal / reading comprehension etc. While she did ok in Verbal (7 – still not representative of her abilities), she basically bombed the rest of the test, despite scoring much better on official practice tests, working with a tutor etc. Looking at the large number of questions she got wrong, I have a feeling there was some kind of error in scoring her test since it was all hand written and she is dysgraphic. Is there a way to appeal or ask for a secondary review of the test grading? I didn’t expect her to get 8s and 9s but 2s and 3s are not congruent with intelligence, prep work or past performance and something seems amiss. (And believe me, I am completely aware of her learning issues and weaknesses!)

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Lynda,

      There are three possibilities. 1) Your daughter had a bad day and didn’t perform to her potential on the exam (for whatever reason). 2) She made manual errors while circling her answer choices. 3) While hand-scoring your daughter’s test, there was human error on the part of ERB. I would definitely put in a call to ask about re-scoring her test booklet. If that doesn’t shed light on your daughter’s depressed performance, it may wise for your daughter to re-take the exam with her accommodations in place. I know that application deadlines are fast-approaching, so putting another test date on the calendar should be a first priority.

  • Regina Marino says:

    Hi Matt,

    My daughter has been in private school since the age of 3. She has a very high IQ and has always done very well in all subjects. She’s applying to very competitive schools for 6th grade in MASS and on her first attempt sored all 4’s. She does have test anxiety and said she was very nervous she wouldn’t finish. She’s taking it again on Sunday. We have taken a break from studying and are only focusing on the test strategies. Do you have any guidance with just a few days left to prepare? My fear is that her low scores will mean she won’t get in to any of the schools. On the other hand, she was exceptional at all of her interviews and is a very strong writer (I expect applications to be solid). Any help will be appreciated.


  • Adrian says:

    Hi Matt-

    My kid took the ISEE twice, and significantly improved the second time. The school to which we are applying recommends that applicants submit all test results if they took it more than once. Should we do that and how are they likely to view a situation where scores dramatically improved within a few weeks? Thanks!

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Adrian,

      I would not worry about releasing all of your student’s scores. It’s best to follow the school’s policy.

      Can you identify a reason for the depressed scores on the first test date? Was your student not feeling well? Anxiety? Other issues that would have prevented him/her from performing to his/her potential? If there’s a place to explain the disparity in ISEE scores on your student’s application, I’d recommend that you do so. Anecdotally, I’ve also found admission directors to be warm and receptive to parents who have these sorts of concerns. You may want to give the admission office a call and candidly explain your predicament. I’m sure they’ll allay your anxieties. 🙂

  • Xavier says:

    Which ISEE result would you submit (Test One v. Test Two), if you scored worse in QR the second time around (Test Two 4 vs. Test One 5 ), but better in MA (Test Two 7 vs. Test One 5)? VR and RC Stanines remained the same in both tests at 6 (but VR scale score and percentile were slightly better in Test Two). Can you overcome a QR 4 with a MA 7?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Xavier,

      Because there are only slight variances in your scores across tests, I’d recommend that you submit both sets of scores to schools. They will likely combine the highest subscores across administrations for a ‘superscore’ (6,6,5,7). Ultimately, admission offices decide which aspects of the ISEE they emphasize most. In Los Angeles, many of the admission directors I’ve spoken with place a premium on Reading Comprehension and Math Achievement, because they represent cumulative academic skills that students have developed over time. Other schools may have competitive math programs and care most about Quantitative Analysis and Math Achievement over the ‘verbal’ sections.

      I hope this helps!

  • Andy Zeng says:

    Hi Matt! I took my ISEE two times and the first was VR 93% stanine 8, RC 85% stanine 7,QR 99% stanine 9,MA 95% stanine 8, and the second was VR 80% stanine 7, RC 94% stanine 8,QR 96% stanine 9,MA 94% stanine 8. I know I did well but I’m applying to huge names like Philips Academy Andover, Lawrenceville and Choate Rosemary hall. What are my chances of getting in given my ISEE scores?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Andy,

      Wow – you knocked the ISEE out of the park. At this point, your admission to any of those schools hinges on additional elements of your application (e.g. previous performance in school, interview, letters of recommendation, admission essays, etc.). You’ve ‘cleared’ the testing hurdle.

      Your terrific ISEE results definitely improve your chances of admission, but without knowledge of the rest of your application (or the attitudes/objectives of the admission offices), I can’t give you a better estimate of your chances.

  • Joanna says:

    Why do you recommend the paper test over the online test?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Joanna,

      We recommend paper-and-pencil testing, because it’s how most students take exams and complete homework in school. Especially if students have undergone a significant course of paper-based test prep, traditional note-taking strategies for reading and math don’t translate as well (e.g. students can’t mark up reading passages on their computer screens; students often make mistakes as they transfer their answers from scratch paper to online responses). Because computer-based testing sites often host adult test-takers too (e.g. adult learners taking the GRE for graduate school), there’s the possibility of a young ISEE test-taker being seated next to an adult three times her age. This can amplify the stress a student feels on test day.

  • Melody says:

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for the great article! I saw that you recommended a test prep book but better to hire a tutor to work together on that book. What about if we don’t have a tutor, would that book still work well on our own or you would recommend another book? Thank you for the advice!

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hello Melody!
      I do think the ISEE preparation book published by Summit Education Group would be an excellent tool even if you don’t have a tutor to work with. That being said, the book is definitely hefty and dense…not the most exciting read for students who are attempting to review the material independently.

      • Melody says:

        Thank you Matt! My daughter took the test in Nov and got 7 7 8 7. She could have done better. She will take it one more time in the beginning of Jan. Between now and then, what’s the best way to improve the scores? Thank you!

        • Matt Steiner says:

          Hi Melody,
          Those scores are fabulous. It’s likely that your daughter only missed a small handful of questions per section of the exam (perhaps even less). Given your daughter’s penchant for standardized testing, it may simply be a matter of practice rather than learning new content. Have you signed up for a complimentary ISEE practice test with Compass? We can send you a copy of the exam, grade it, and provide you with an interpretation of the results – free of charge. If your daughter would like to do a bit of private tutoring, we can also schedule in-person or remote/online ISEE lessons. Personally, I believe your daughter’s scores are great as-is, and I’d recommend that you focus on other aspects of the application process.

  • Siyi Li says:


    Thank you for this wonderful article, it solved a lot of problems I had. I am a student from China who finished middle school in China(not a international school), and I am going to the United States for high school (9th Grade). I received my ISEE score a couple of days ago, and I scored 5 on VR, 6 on RC, 9 on QR, 8 on MA, but I don’t think I did well in the writing section. Actually, I have been accepted by Chaminade College Prep in California, but I still want to apply to some better schools. Now my targets are some relatively rigorous and selective schools in CA like Francis Parker. I wonder whether my ISEE performance is good enough or I am supposed to take this exam again in the next season.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hello Siyi Li,

      I’m so happy that my article helped you. Your ISEE scores are very strong (especially in QR and MA), and I imagine a number of private schools in Los Angeles would agree that they are sufficient for admission (not withstanding other elements in your applications). As a side note, I attended Chaminade College Preparatory and had a terrific experience. I graduated in 2003. 🙂

      I would only advise that you re-take the ISEE if you can obtain scores prior to school application deadlines. There’s a chance that your VR and RC scores will go up, and the schools to which you are applying will ‘superscore’ your results across multiple test administrations.

      Best of luck!

  • Jennifer Robinson says:

    This is really helpful. Thank you. We have heard rumors that some schools are requesting all of the scores if a test is taken multiple times. Do you know if the ISEE only sends the highest or if the school requests it, will the ISEE send all of the test results? Thanks very much.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Glad you found the article helpful! To answer your question, regardless of what a school’s preferred policy is, YOU get to choose which test dates you submit. You cannot, however, send individual subscores from different test administrations. If you a pick a test date to send, all scores from that test date are shared.

      ERB cannot release test results that you haven’t approved for submission. Unless you elect to have your scores automatically submitted to specific schools (this is done during the registration process), you have to log back into your ERB account and electronically submit scores to the schools to which you are applying.

  • michelle kelner says:

    My son, who is currently in 6th grade just took the Middle School ERBs and scored 7 6 6 7 which seems ok but perhaps not competitive enough for the very selective NYC private schools we are applying to. Is there anything we can do to make sure he does better in the second round of testing.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Michelle,

      Sorry for the delayed reply. You’re right – those scores are excellent, but I understand the desire to get a “leg up” on the competition in NYC. Given your son’s obvious aptitude for standardized testing, he would likely benefit from a round of targeted, private tutoring. I imagine there are many test prep options in your neighborhood, but if you’d like to give Compass a try, I promise we can deliver fabulous one-on-one, online tutoring. Just give our office a call: 800.925.1250.

  • Courtney says:

    Hi Matt – My son is in public school and will be taking the ISEE in just under a month for admission to 7th grade private schools. In reviewing the ERB’s site sample questions, I realized that they differ from the Common Core format he’s been learning the last few years. Will Common Core affect his ability to accurately interpret what the ISEE questions are asking?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Courtney,
      Common Core’s prescribed coverage of material should not significantly impact your son’s ability to perform well on the ISEE (quite a bit of Common Core aligns with best practices for teaching at independent schools). I will say, however, that students enrolled at independent schools will have taken previous benchmark assessments created by ERB (the ‘Comprehensive Testing Program’ or CTPs), which may make the structure and format of the ISEE more familiar to them. The bottom line – don’t sweat it. Have your son take an ISEE practice test or two prior to his official administration – consider tutoring if his practice test scores seem deflated – and move forward with the official test.

  • Victor says:

    My son is a straight A 8th grader in the honors program and just took the ISEE for the first time this past weekend. I was very surprised to find out that he did not score nearly well as I had expected receiving percentile rank scores of 78, 50, 77, 83 which place him in the stanine 7,5,7,7 respectively. As I am reading that the same upper level exam is given to those students entering 8th through 12th grade, my question is: Are 8th graders taking the test scored the same as 11th graders taking the same test?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Victor,

      Keep in mind that the testing population on the ISEE is composed of some of the best and brightest private school-bound children across the country. Your 8th grader’s scores, particularly those 7’s, put him well above the majority of of test takers in an incredibly competitive group. You should be very proud!

      To clarify, the Upper Level ISEE is administered to students applying to grades 9 through 12 (or, current 8th-11th graders). And although an 8th grader and an 11th grader may see the same version of the test on exam day, their scores are derived via comparison to test takers in the same grade. In other words, 8th graders are only being compared to other 8th graders; 9th graders to other 9th graders; 10th graders to 10th graders; etc.

  • Malika says:

    Hello Matt, my son take isee test recently but I am not happy with a result. Unfortunately we already send this results to schools.I would like to ask can my son retake the test and will the school follow highest results?
    Thank you.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Malika,

      I suggest that you contact the admission offices at the schools to which you applied. Tell them that your son is planning to retake the exam during a different testing window, and that you would like those new scores to be considered before final application decisions are made. If the results of another exam date will not arrive to schools until after their application deadlines, it is unlikely that these scores will be considered during this admission cycle.

  • Susan says:

    Hi Matt

    How many days does it take to receive an ISEE score report by email ? (middle level)

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Susan,

      Scores are typically available online the Monday immediately following the exam date (24-48 hours). Definitely call ERB if your test scores are not accessible online within a week’s time. You should also receive a physical score report from ERB within 3-4 weeks of the exam date.

      • Susan says:

        They said the score reports are available online 7 days after the student’s test is scored, there is an additional $40.00 fee to receive the score report online the day the test is scored.

        I did not pay for the extra service, so my child’s test was scored on Wednesday and the online score report is not available until 11 days after the test date. He got 7 7 8 5, I am not happy with his reading score, he will need to retake the test.

        • Matt Steiner says:

          Hi Susan,

          Thanks for the follow-up. You’re right – ERB has updated its score reporting terms. This is what the ERB website currently says about obtaining ISEE score reports/results:

          For paper ISEE testing, score reports are available online only for families who request “Expedited Scores with Online Access” and pay the $35 additional fee. Otherwise, ERB mails a student’s score report to the address given at the time of registration. This report arrives 7-10 business days after the test administration.

          I’m assuming the 24-48 hour turnover that was guaranteed in previous years can now be obtained via the $35 fee. Fortunately, the alternative to expedited scoring – waiting 7-10 business days – isn’t a terribly protracted process. I’ll be updating my post now!

          • Susan says:

            It is $40, not $35. I can only view the score report online only. They did not send it by postal mail.

            This is what they posted under my account:

            * For paper ISEE testing, score reports are available online seven days after the student’s test is scored (not seven days after the test). It is an additional $40.00 fee to receive the score report online the day the test is scored. To add that service, click the “View Registration” button for the student, and then click the button to “Add Schools or Services.”

            For online ISEE testing at a school or Prometric site, score reports will post online as soon as the test has been scored. An email will be sent to the email address attached to the child’s record to let you know the report is ready. A hard copy will not be sent to the home address.

  • Joanne P says:


    My son took the ISEE last year, but did not apply out of his private school for 7th grade. He would now like to apply out for 8th grade, does he have to retake the ISEE or can we use his January 2016 scores?

    Thank you, Joanne

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Joanne,

      Great question. Yes, your son will need to re-test unless the school(s) to which you are applying make an exception (they usually will not). Even though your son already took the Middle Level test last year, his scores were derived in comparison to peers in the same grade level (6th). When your son takes the Middle Level test for 8th grade, his scores will be derived in comparison to his peers in the 7th grade. It’s also possible that your son will have a stronger performance this time around now that he’s had a year of school under his belt and has matured academically/emotionally.

      Best of luck to you, Joane!


  • Nera says:

    Hi Matt,
    My daughter is an honor roll student and she took the ISEE test last year for enrollment into 5th grade. We didn’t prep and she scored 3,2,3,4 which was a little lower then what we expected. We will apply again this year for her to enroll for 2017-2018 school year for 6th grade. Do you have any prep advise such as websites or books that I can purchase to help prepare her a little better. Her teacher said that she was above reading level and a great math student so I would like to prepare her just a little better this year. Thanks in advance

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Nera,

      The best free resource for the Lower Level Exam (5th and 6th grade applicants) is the downloadable ‘What to Expect on the ISEE’ guide, which includes a full-length Lower Level practice test. You can find the piece on erblearn.org – just navigate through the ISEE portion of the website.

      Beyond ERB’s resources, I always recommend the Lower, Middle, and Upper Level ISEE Course Book published by Summit Educational Group (mytutor.com). I highly recommend that you hire a tutor to work through the course book with your daughter – it is not designed for self-study.

      Let me know if you have any further questions!

      Warm Regards,


  • Elizabeth Gregory says:

    This was an informative post Matt! Thanks for answering the questions on so many parents minds.
    Hope to see you at another presentation soon. Please come to Harvard-Westlake for a visit.
    We’d love to give you a tour.

    Elizabeth Gregory

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Wow – what a wonderful compliment coming from someone I so greatly respect! I do hope we get to see each other soon, and it would be a great privilege to tour the school (I actually have never been to the Middle School Campus – is that where your office is located?). Have a wonderful day!

  • Laurel Baker Tew says:

    Nice work Matt!

  • urshula says:

    After reading your article back in fall, my 8th grade daughter started preparing for the test reviewing ISEE prep book an hour a week for 3 months. She took a few test taking skills class and 2 practice test couple of weeks before taking the test in december.
    She scored 9,9,8,8 on ISEE and 99,99,98 on HSPT. She got accepted to the PVT school of her choice. Familiarizing with the test was the key but being an avid reader and all rounded kid helped.
    Thank you.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Urshula,

      Your daughter’s scores are truly exceptional. Congratulations to her for performing so well on test day! And I agree with your assessment, strong academic skills (especially reading) that students build cumulatively – prior to the administration of the ISEE – have the greatest effect on scores.

    • Melody says:

      Hi Urshula, may I ask where your daughter took the test taking skill classes? And which test prep book did she use? Thank you so much!

    • Melody says:

      Hi Urshula, may I ask where you daughter took the test taking skills class? Also which ISEE prep book did she use? Thank you!

  • Nancy says:

    Hi Matt,

    We just found out a few days ago that my daughter needs to take the ISEE next week for admission into a private high school. Because she has had no prep time and is completely unfamiliar with the test, I spent some time helping her understand the test. Today she took an online practice test. She is scoring very low – 2’s and 3’s. She is a straight A student in what I thought to be a decent public middle school. Do you think the practice test is a good indicator? What do you recommend? TIA

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You don’t mention where your daughter took the online practice test. Was this with official ERB material, or was it from a test prep company? If the latter, it may have scaling issues — especially if, as is often the case, the site provides a shortened test

      • Nancy says:

        Thanks so much for your reply. It was with an online provider of practice tests. And it was a full length test. I realize that I shouldn’t be expecting high percentile’s like the state standardized tests that she has taken, but I’m shocked with 20th percentile.

        • Nancy says:

          She went ahead and took the test, with minimal prep time and got a 3,5,4,5. Wish we would have had more prep time…

  • Grace says:

    Hi Matt,

    I am so glad that I found your article on line. Can you please clarify that when the score is 6, for instance, is this the average of the public school student who took the exam or those from the private school? My daughter recently took the ERB comprehensive testing program IV from a local private school which has one of the highest academic standards in the area. She receives a national norm (97%) in math but only 75% in independent school norm. I am trying to figure out the difference between the two norms. Please advice! thanks

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Grace,

      Thank YOU for reading. 🙂 You have asked some great questions.

      ERB defines national norms as: “…comparisons of individual or group performance with the national population, with schools in all 50 states in areas including: Urban, rural, suburban, large and small, high and low socioeconomic groups.” ERB defines independent school norms as: “The average of the most recent three years of testing by independent school CTP 4 users throughout the U.S. and abroad.” The reference population for national norms must be generated by a statistical algorithm, because the vast majority of schools nationwide do not use ERB’s assessments. This theoretical population is far less competitive than the actual population of CTP 4 test takers (students at rigorous independent schools) so percentiles framed in relation to this group will always be significantly higher than independent school norms. Administrators at independent schools care little about the national norms – they want to know how their students are performing relative to peer private schools that use ERB’s suite of assessments.

  • Jill says:

    Is there a prep book I can purchase for the ISEE Primary 3? Thanks for any suggestions!

  • Tsmom says:

    My daughter is applying to the fourth grade at a Massachusetts independent school. She took the ISEE recently. I did not hire tutors; nor did I purchase on-line programs or test prep books. I simply showed her the online practice test on the ERB website. I helped her navigate her way through the first part of the practice test; she has never used a computer independently before. She was calm and relaxed when she took the exam. Unfortunately, I think she misunderstood the consequences when the test administrator told her she could skip questions if she wanted to. My daughter took that to mean she didn’t have to do the hard problems, she could, as she told me afterward, “just skip them.” She said she probably answered “about 1 out of every 4 questions.”

    I’m frustrated about this exam for two reasons: first– my daughter has never used a computer, second, she has not yet learned most of the math that was on the exam. I looked at the practice test the ERB provided. Most of it was completely unfamiliar to my daughter (who gets good grades and scored in the superior range on the WISC). Between not knowing how to use a computer, not having had data analysis or geometry yet, and not ever having taken an exam, I feel like she didn’t have a chance of succeeding on this test. On top of that, I took what seemed like good advice, and didn’t prep her with tutors and test prep materials. Looking back, I wish i had purchased the prep materials and at leas spent a few weeks or months helping her get comfortable with it all.

    I realize that school looks at other criteria, when making admissions decisions. If this test is the factor that keeps her out, I’ll be frustrated, but I’ll also know it’s probably not the right fit for my child.

    When we begin the high school admissions process, I’m going to be certain she goes in to the testing situation knowledgable about the concepts and skilled in taking online high-stakes exams. Lesson learned.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Thank you for sharing the details of your daughter’s plight. You’ve illuminated one of the primary reasons we don’t encourage computer-based testing for the ISEE – it is foreign to children who are used to paper-and-pencil examinations.

      Should you need help sorting out the prep process on future entrance exams, please don’t hesitate to contact me or one of my colleagues in the Compass office. Even though we’re not based in Mass., I imagine we can still provide you with helpful advising about the mechanics of the exams and different models of prep.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this article. What about the opposite situation — 99% in all ISEE subjects (including perfect scores in several sections), As and Bs in a decent public middle school, but possibly teacher recommendations that say the child is very bright but can be difficult to teach (probably because she is bored)? Child is applying to a very selective private high school. I’m trying to figure out what the above sentence means: “Top-notch ISEE scores mean very little if the family unit is not a cultural match for the school.”

  • Rose says:

    On the practice test for ISEE under schools, what does it mean when it says Low under competitiveness for a particular school? Some schools say Fairly Low, some say Moderate, or Fairly Low.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Rose,

      Can you clarify? Are you referring to the official practice test included in the ‘Understanding the ISEE’ document published by the ERB? Please feel free to privately email me with your question.


  • Peacock says:

    Hey there, Matt,

    Thank you so much for your great insights. My daughter is in 8th grade, straight A student and competitive tennis, ballet, foreign languages, etc. She is applying to some very competitive schools, and they seem to like her a lot. But her scores were in the 6,7,6,6, range. How bad is this? Should we be worried?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Peacock, 🙂

      Those scores are solid and put your daughter well over the national average across the board (within a very competitive testing pool). I’d bet my paycheck that your daughter’s ISEE scores will not be the final arbiter of whether or not she gets into a particular school. It comes down to the remaining elements of her application. You should be very proud of your daughter’s performance.

  • Neeta says:

    Hi Matt,

    Would like to know if a score 6,7,6, 6 get into a good private middle school? My son is an “A” student in a private school. He did not do as expected.

    Please Advice.

  • Art says:


    Thanks for a great article as it puts the whole admission process in practice. We have a similar situation as described by some above. Our son just got his scores back and he got 7,5,9 and 8. He scored on math sections as expected and pretty much in the range for VR. We are very perplexed by his scores on reading comprehension. His vocabulary is pretty strong and that showed both on VR and Vocab in context for RC. Within RC, he got all questions wrong on Main idea while he got all questions right on supporting idea! Have you seen anything like this before and how will the admissions officers will see this? We are applying to very selective schools in the bay area. He is a straight “A” student in a private school with high scores on his ERB’s at school ( mostly 90+ percentile)


    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Art,

      Again, I think this falls into the ‘anomaly’ category. The rest of your son’s ISEE scores are excellent (even a ‘5’ is a solid result – it just pales in comparison to the rest of those exceptional stanines). If I was evaluating your son’s application, I would say that his ISEE scores are more than sufficient for some of the best independent schools in the country – now it comes down to reviewing the rest of his application and determining if he and your family are a good fit for the school.


    • Tanaz says:

      Hi, I wanted to know if it is recommended for a student to take the test mid year rather then August? Would they score differently if they have not started the school year yet? Thank

      • Matt Steiner says:

        My apologies for the delayed reply, Tanaz. Students tend to peak on the ISEE later into their academic years, so it’s usually best to take the exam in the fall – well before school applications and test scores are due. The only exception here is a student who plans to take the ISEE once during the summer testing window (August) for the purposes of practice and then plans to take the ISEE again in the fall testing window after having completed more coursework in school (and possibly some test preparation).

  • Aliyah says:

    I’m applying to a school that has a low acceptance rate, and I didn’t get the scores on the ISEE test that my family told me are going to get me in. I got a 7,6,7,7, and now I am unsure if I will even get in. Should I be worried?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Aliyah,

      It’s important to remember that even ‘perfect’ ISEE scores (9’s across the board) are not a golden ticket to get into any school. Anecdotally, from my experience working with students applying to private schools based in Los Angeles, those test scores – 7,6,7,7 – are very impressive. Generally, your scores put you at or above (approximately) 80% of test-takers nationwide. Unless the school uses hard cut-offs to determine acceptances (very unlikely), it really comes down to the strength of the rest of your application.

      Best of luck!


  • Eric says:


    I really appreciate it you’re description of this complicated examination. My fifth grade son took the exam without prep – as we are consider secondary private education and didn’t realize the application process was due so soon. My son is coming from public school and I think he scored very well on three sections 9, 8, 8, and then had a four in Vocabulary. I’m having trouble interpreting his scores. Could this be that he has not been exposed to the vocabulary? What do you think?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Eric,

      I have to admit, this is an anomalous situation for me. Students who score a 9 or 8 on Reading Comprehension (90+ percentile) tend to score commensurately on Verbal Reasoning. Incredibly strong readers tend to have robust vocabularies and are adept at inferring the meaning of words based on context clues (a crucial skill on the VR section). If I was in your position, I would take a close look at your son’s score report and make sure that there aren’t any odd clerical patterns on the Verbal Reasoning (e.g. huge swaths of omitted answers or incorrect answers). Sometimes I find that students inadvertently skip a bubble on their scantrons and fill out the remainder of their answer sheets incorrectly. I’ve also seen students who simply perform less well on Verbal Reasoning because it is the first section of the test, and test takers are unfocused but gain momentum and concentration as the test continues.

      My opinion: the three exceptional scores on the rest of the test far outweigh the ‘4’ on Verbal Reasoning.


      • cindy says:

        Hi Matt
        Thank you for writing such a great article. My son has similar situation described by Eric. He scored all 7 but a 5 in vocabulary. The vocab section is tricky because the synonyms might not be familiar to the students. My son’s reading comprehension is strong because he could predict the passages. I do hope private school could overlook the vocal section and understand that it is unfair to judge students academic abilities base on 18 vocal words. If the kid is lucky, he/she recognized the words. In my son’s case, he was not too lucky.
        Thank you

  • Alex says:

    Hi, Matt,

    What happen if most stanine socres are high (9,9 and 8), but one section is low, like 6. The student is applying an academically rigorous schools.



  • Jody H says:


    I believe your graph showing the annual distribution of stanines may be incorrect. The first column indicates 3% of students receive a 1, which is consistent with the chart (released by ERB) that shows percentiles 1-3 produce a stanine of 1. However, the second column indicates 6% of students receive a 2. The chart shows students with a percentile of 4-10 receive a 2, and this group contains seven different percentiles. Assuming an even distribution of students in each percentile, and based off your logic for the first column, this should mean that 7% of students receive a 2, not 6%. The same applies for the remainder of the columns – you are one percentage point short. In fact, if you total your percentages you have only accounted for 91% of students.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Jody,

      Excellent catch! You’re right – the columns need to be adjusted. I need to account for an additional percentage point in the stanine ranges of 2-9. I’ll update the chart as soon as I have a free moment!



      • Nina Mai says:

        Hi Matt,
        I am feeling so much better after reading your article….
        My daughter is a happy, straight A, 8th grader. She just took the ISEE a few days ago, but the scores are not as good as what I expected ( Stanine range of 5-6). With her ISEE scores above, is she ready for a rigorous high school? Thanks for your time!

        • Matt Steiner says:

          Hi Nina,

          The best predictor of academic readiness for higher education (whether that be high school, college, or graduate school) is grades. If your daughter is a straight ‘A’ student at a fairly rigorous program, I have no doubt that she’s ready for a challenging high school. Although she didn’t obtain test results at the top of the scale, her scores are solid and demonstrate a strong familiarity with academic concepts that she will utilize in high school.


  • Vijaya says:

    What are acceptable ISEE numbers to independant schools? is 6 4 5 5 good?

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hello Vijaya,

      I receive questions like these all of the time. What makes a ‘good’ ISEE score hinges on the admission trends of the schools to which your child is applying. As I mentioned in my post, statistically, most students score in the 4-6 range on multiple sections, which many independent schools view as sufficient for admission (in conjunction with many other admission factors like grades, teacher evaluations, interviews, etc.). Because the admission process is holistic, the majority of admission directors across the country will tell you that there are no ‘cutoff scores’ that bar students from admission. However, anecdotally, I will say that my colleagues in admission take special note of exceptional scores – those that are on the top end of the scale (7-9) and those that are on the bottom (1-3). Some academically rigorous schools have found correlation between high ISEE scores and strong academic performance among their accepted students.

      I hope this is helpful to you!


  • Dr. Woods says:

    Our son is taking the ISEE in a few months, and we’ve read lots of literature on the subject. This is by the far best and most anxiety-reducing piece I’ve read on the subject. He was quite stressed out taking the diagnostic earlier this summer. He received very positive letters of recommendation from his previous school and he as an excellent GPA. I don’t want him to feel like a “poor” score on the ISEE will determine his fate for high school…especially considering the test is only one day (compared to years worth of good grades and conduct in middle school).

    • Matt Steiner says:

      I’m so thrilled that you enjoyed the piece, Dr. Woods. Cumulative GPA, recommendation letters, and interviews are just as important as an ISEE score (perhaps more important). The multiplicity of factors in a student’s application form a system of checks and balances. Best of luck to you and your son!

    • Rebecca says:

      Thank you for this article. What about the opposite situation — 99% in all ISEE subjects (including perfect scores in several sections), As and Bs in a decent public middle school, but possibly teacher recommendations that say the child is very bright but can be difficult to teach (probably because she is bored)? Child is applying to a very selective private high school. I’m trying to figure out what the above sentence means: “Top-notch ISEE scores mean very little if the family unit is not a cultural match for the school.”

      • Matt Steiner says:

        Hi Rebecca,

        Thank you for the comment. I’m afraid that your question goes beyond the scope of my expertise (I’m not a school placement specialist, and I don’t know the specifics of your student’s situation). By ‘cultural match,’ I mean the specific educational values that the school believes its families should share and uphold. For instance (just as a hypothetical), if the school places a premium on parent involvement, liberal notions of social justice, and learning via long-term, collaborative assignments (rather than testing), but these things mean little to the applicant and his parents, it is likely that the student will not be the correct fit for the school.

        Does this help?

        • Tracy says:

          This is so true that “Top-notch ISEE scores mean very little if the family unit is not a cultural match for the school.” My son prepared for ISEE two and half weeks ago before the 9th grade ISEE test and beyond my expectation, he got 9’s on all four sectiond with three out of four with perfect scores. He is definately not a well-behaved model student in public school now, since he always likes to talk during classes and disturbing other, which I receive email complains from school every year. He was on waiting list from #1 private school in Houston. Luckily, he got accepted from #2 private school.

    • Allison says:

      I tested for The Kinkaid School, a private school in Houston, for the lower levels. I got 7 7 8 9 and I got rejected (not even put on the wait list…). I would like to know if I should’ve been accepted, because I read that most people get scores between 4-6, so I should’ve been above average, right?

      • Matt Steiner says:

        Hi Allison,

        Your ISEE scores are exceptional – you should be proud of them! Your case illustrates that no single factor in a student’s application can guarantee admission to a private school. Applications are evaluated holistically across a number of domains: performance in school/grades, letters of recommendation from teachers/administrators, essays, interviews, etc. The reasons for being admitted or denied are just as varied as the individual students applying to a school. If you are curious about why you were denied admission, you may want to politely ask the Directors of Admission at the Kinkaid School. However, they are not obligated to give you an answer. Best of luck in your journey!

    • Fern says:

      Hi! I just took a mock ISEE test and scored a 6 5 7 4 without any practice. I have one month to prepare as I certainly overestimated my abilities. How rigorous must my studying be to up my scores in your opinion?

      • Matt Steiner says:

        Hi Fern,

        Although you may not realize it, those scores are (already) very competitive – especially considering the fact that you went in ‘cold turkey.’ Your lowest score – a ‘4’ in Math Achievement (MA) – is perhaps the easiest to improve. MA has a limited number of math concepts, so I recommend that you simply familiarize yourself with the content by taking an additional practice test or two and completing MA problem sets. The same goes for your slightly depressed Reading Comprehension score (RC), which will likely see a bump after you continue practicing passage-based readings, and ideally, implement notation strategies that will allow you to answer questions more accurately. If you’d like more specific advice, please don’t hesitate to call one of our offices and speak with a director about prep. 🙂

    • Sebastian says:

      What other dates are their to register in 2017? i would be grateful to know.

      (Your site is extraordinary!)