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The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE)

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The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) test is an admission assessment used to decide entry into independent and magnet schools in the US and abroad.

It covers the following age groups:

  • ISEE primary for entry into years 2–4
  • ISEE lower level for entry into years 5–6
  • ISEE middle level for entry into years 7–8
  • ISEE upper level for entry into years 9–12

The ISEE test measures a child’s abilities and compares them with other applicants.

The number of ISEE test dates varies according to location. Most test dates are in the fall and early winter. Entrants are restricted to taking the ISEE test once only within a period of six months.

The ISEE test is created and maintained by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). Registration for the ISEE test may be made online, by phone or by mail.

What Is Being Assessed?

The ISEE test assesses the child’s academic level and likelihood of success at the desired school through five test sections:

  • Verbal reasoning
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Reading comprehension
  • Math achievement
  • Essay

The number of questions varies depending on the age of the child.

Question Formats and Type

The first four sections – verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension and math achievement – contain multiple-choice questions.

It is the score on each of these sections that will decide the final result.

The essay section is not graded but is forwarded to the relevant school as additional evidence of the child’s academic level.

Verbal Reasoning

The purpose of this section of the ISEE test is to assess the child’s vocabulary and their related reasoning through the use of synonyms and sentence completion.

First, the child is asked to demonstrate their understanding of vocabulary and the links between different words. What word has a similar meaning to the defined word?

For instance,

1. What is the synonym of 'harmony'?

A. friendliness
B. agreement
C. happiness
D. discord

The sentence completion section takes the child’s understanding of vocabulary a step further, demonstrating not only the meaning of the words but also how those words work together.

For instance,

2. She decided to take the bus to the library because it would allow her ___ time to carry out plenty of research there and still be home before tea.

A. sufficient
B. merely
C. insufficient
D. deficient

The correct answers are:

1. B
2. A

Quantitative Reasoning

This is the first maths-related section of the ISEE test. It examines the child’s mathematical reasoning ability using worded questions instead of mathematical calculations.

This section is split into word problems and quantitative comparisons.

Quantitative comparison questions are only used in the ISEE test for middle and upper levels.

An example of a word problem is:

1. Helen wants to buy a mixture of apples and oranges, with an equal number of each fruit. Apples cost 20 cents each and oranges cost 25 cents each. She has 10 dollars to spend.

Which expression states how many items of fruit she can buy for that amount?

A. 23 apples and 23 oranges
B. 20 apples and 20 oranges
C. 22 apples and 22 oranges
D. 19 apples and 19 oranges

A quantitative comparison question will ask the child to compare two quantities.

The answer to this type of question is always one of the following:

A. The quantity in Column A is greater.
B. The quantity in Column B is greater.
C. The two quantities are equal.
D. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

An example of a quantitative comparison question is:

2. Where x is a positive integer:

Column A: 3x + 8
Column B: 5x

A. The quantity in Column A is greater.
B. The quantity in Column B is greater.
C. The two quantities are equal.
D. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

The correct answers are:

1. C – 22 apples = 4.40;22oranges=4.40; 22 oranges = 5.50. So, the total is 9.90,themaximumshecanbuyfor9.90, the maximum she can buy for 10
2. D – The relationship can not be deteminded as the total will vary depending on whether x is a small or large number.

Reading Comprehension

This section is made up of five or six short passages of writing depending on the level of the ISEE test (lower, middle or upper).

Each passage is followed by five or six questions which cover:

  1. The main idea of the passage
  2. Ideas that support the main idea
  3. What is inferred in the passage but not obvious
  4. Vocabulary
  5. The logic and organizational structure of the passage
  6. The use of figurative language in the passage, plus tone and style

In this section, examples of the questions following a set passage could be:

1. The main purpose of the passage is:

A. to recount the author’s memory of a childhood friend
B. to comment on the need for parents to monitor their children’s health
C. to discuss childhood illnesses
D. to reflect on the author’s own childhood illnesses

2. In the passage above, what does ‘blinkered’ mean?

A. helped
B. made aware
C. blinded
D. annoyed

3. In the passage, what is inferred about the unknown boy?

A. That his parents neglected him
B. That the boy loved the author
C. That the boy’s good health was unusual
D. That the author’s parents neglected them

4. Based on the information in the passage, which of the following is true?

A. The author and boy were siblings
B. The boy never got ill
C. The author never got ill
D. The author only knew the boy as a child

Math Achievement

This is the second maths section in the ISEE test.

The first section, quantitative reasoning, examines the child’s mathematical reasoning through worded questions. The math achievement section examines what the child has learned about math from past school grades.

The child is asked to solve math problems based on areas such as algebra, geometry and measurement.

The questions in this section of the ISEE test are set at national mathematics standards.

An example of a math achievement question is:

1. Which of the following numbers is NOT a factor of 324?

A. 4
B. 9
C. 81
D. 17

The correct answer is: D


In this section, the child is given a subject on which to write an essay within a 30-minute time limit.

These topics are chosen at random but are intended to be relevant to the pupil’s age and a subject that they can relate to and show an interest in.

The essay will not be marked but it provides the pupil with the opportunity to express their personality and explain a little about who they are.

Three examples of essay prompts are:

  • Who is your favorite author and why?
  • If you could meet any past historical figure, who would it be and why?
  • What is your most treasured possession? Explain why this is.

What to Expect When Taking the ISEE Test

The ISEE test may be taken at school in a large group testing session or a testing office in a small group testing session.

The primary level ISEE test may only be taken online, but the lower, middle and upper-level tests are also available in a paper format.

The time limit for sitting the ISEE test is the same whether the online or paper option is taken.

The components of the ISEE test vary depending on the age of the pupil.


The ISEE test at primary level is to gain entry into grades 2 to 4. The components of the test vary depending on the child’s school grade.

For those seeking entry into Grade 2, the test contains:

  • An auditory comprehension section containing 6 questions
  • 18 reading questions
  • 24 math questions
  • A writing prompt with a picture

The time allowance for the test at this age is 53 minutes plus writing time.

For entry into Grade 3, the test contains:

  • 24 reading questions
  • 24 math questions
  • a writing prompt with a picture

The time allowance is 1 hour plus writing time.

For entry into Grade 4, the test is made up of:

  • 24 reading questions
  • 28 math questions
  • a writing prompt

The time allowance is 1 hour plus writing time.

In all of the above levels, the writing exercise is not timed.


The ISEE test for the lower age group, for entry into grades 5 to 6 is made up of:

  • 34 verbal reasoning questions
  • 38 quantitative reasoning questions
  • 5 passages with 5 corresponding questions (25 questions in total) for the reading comprehension section
  • 30 math achievement questions
  • 1 essay

For this level, the pupil is given 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the test and is allowed two five-minute breaks.

Middle and Upper

The ISEE test for the middle age group (for entry into grades 7 to 8) and the upper age group (entry into grades 9 to 12) is made up of:

  • 40 verbal reasoning questions
  • 37 quantitative reasoning questions
  • 6 passages with 6 corresponding questions (36 questions in total) for the reading comprehension section
  • 47 math achievement questions
  • 1 essay

For these levels, the pupils are given 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete the test and are allowed two five-minute breaks.

How Is the Test Scored and What Are the Results Used For?

The ISEE test is scored using the question sections only. The writing component at the end of each test is not scored.

Using these sections, the score is broken down further:

  • Raw score – The number of questions answered correctly
  • Scaled score – Based on the raw score but taking into consideration when a pupil has taken different versions of the test over the school year
  • Percentile ranking – How the pupil ranks in comparison to other pupils and the scoring norm for that grade and age group during the previous three years
  • Stanine score – Converting the child’s score into a single number on a scale of 1 to 9 for each section of the test, which allows comparison across the different sections and points to strengths and weaknesses

What Else Is Taken Into Consideration for Entry?

A pupil’s ISEE test score plays an important role in gaining entry into their school of choice, but other factors will generally be considered as well.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • The essay written as part of the ISEE test
  • The pupil’s interview with the school
  • School reports and records
  • Extracurricular activities

What to Do Before the ISEE Test

Prepare and practice are the key approaches a pupil should take when readying themselves for the ISEE test.

The pupil should look at the subjects they will be tested on and check whether there are any gaps in their knowledge. Their teacher will be able to help with this.

School may provide sample ISEE test questions, but there are plenty of online resources too:

The ISEE test is timed so pupils should also practice completing sample papers in the time allotted.

The more prepared a pupil feels in the run-up to the ISEE test, the better they are likely to perform on the day.

What to Bring to the ISEE Test

The pupil should bring with them:

  • Verification letter
  • Identification; for example, passport or birth certificate
  • A calculator, if previously approved

Where the ISEE test is taken in the paper-format, four #2/HB pencils already sharpened, four erasers and two black/blue ballpoint pens are permitted.

No other personal items or materials will be allowed into the test room.

How to Do Well on the ISEE Test

There will be a clock visible to the pupils during an ISEE test. All pupils must keep track of how much time they have left.

It is not necessary to spend the same time on each question, and this may actually harm the pupil’s performance on the day.

Pupils should answer the easiest questions first. These are the questions that will generally take less time for a pupil to complete. Once the easier questions are answered, the pupil can go back to the more difficult questions.

The pupil should make sure they have fully read each question and each available answer to avoid making mistakes.

Final Thoughts

The ISEE test is an important factor in whether a pupil will gain entry into their independent school of choice, but it is not the only factor.

School records, academic accomplishments and the pupil’s interview with the school will also play a part.

Preparation and practice, however, will improve a pupil’s chance of doing well in the ISEE test and should be the main focus in the run-up to the exam date.

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