At Ivy Ed, we sometimes say we specialize in alphabet soup because the tests our students take go by so many different acronyms:  SSAT, ISEE, GED, GRE, and so on.  Today we’re focusing on the SSAT and ISEE, the Secondary School Admission Test and the Independent School Entrance Exam, respectively.  At the middle and high school level, we work with students preparing for the SSAT and ISEE, the tests generally used by private schools for consideration in admissions.  Since the testing agencies don’t disclose exactly how the scores are formulated and since private schools do not often share their score requirements, the interpretation and role of these scores in the admissions process can be a bit murky.

A parent came to me recently with concerns about her son Dylan’s score on the SSAT test.  He was a strong student, had always done very well on standardized tests, and was hoping to join the freshman class at one of the selective private schools in the area.  The mother was shocked when Dylan scored only a 60th percentile.

The score seemed to be barely above average, and not reflective of his past success in school.  She wondered what the score meant in the admissions process and whether Dylan still had a chance at getting into a private school.

First, a few thoughts on testing and percentiles.  Yes, Dylan’s score of 60th percentile meant that he scored better than 60 percent of the 8th grade boys who took the test over the last year.  As his mom suspected, he was scoring a little higher than average.  But she anchored her expectations on Dylan’s past standardized tests, where he consistently scored in the 90th percentile and higher.  Why the decline?

There actually was no decline in Dylan’s abilities or progress; it was simply a different norm group. The standardized tests that Dylan took at his public school were graded with a national norm group, meaning that it reflected scores of students from different backgrounds, not just the select group of private school applicants who take the SSAT.  

It is not unusual to see a student who scores in the 90th percentile on a nationally normed test (like the PARCC in New Jersey) score only 60th percentile on an SSAT.  So what does that mean for private school admissions?

In Dylan’s case, his score does indeed reflect his academic success, shows that he is at or above grade level, and is likely to succeed in a competitive high school. Whether he will be accepted to the schools he applies to depends on more than just the standardized test score.  Other important factors include the competitiveness of the applicant pool, his grades, teacher recommendations, interview, and his potential contributions to the school.  

Some private schools release their average SSAT score, and while it can be as high as 90th percentile at schools such as Andover and Exeter, a typical competitive high school has an average SSAT score of around 75th percentile.  Dylan’s score of 60th percentile is a little low for the schools he is considering, but not overly so.  With some well-planned preparation, he can do better on his second try at the SSAT and increase his chances of standing out in the competitive applicant pool.

We suggest that students spend about two months preparing for the SSAT or ISEE (or whichever specific test the school is looking for).  Some of the parochial schools, like Delbarton in New Jersey, have their own tests.  Students can take sample tests, review math concepts that they haven’t covered in a while or have struggled with, practice the reading comprehension sections, and familiarize themselves with the test format.  Students can re-take the tests if they are not happy with their results and they need to adhere to the schools’ deadlines and the testing agencies restrictions on re-testing frequency.  More information about each test can be found at the SSAT site or the ISEE site. At Ivy Ed, we have tutors who are trained specifically to work with students in preparation for these tests and we are happy to review past results at no charge to create a testing plan for the future.