Which Test is Best – ISEE vs. SSAT

The ISEE or SSAT is often the first standardized test students take outside of school.  For parents as well, this can be their first introduction to admissions testing.  For both students and parents, it can be a very stressful time as they try and find the right fit academically and socially in a new environment.  This is compounded by the uncertainty around testing – which test to take?  What’s a good score?  How can a student put their best foot forward?  Fortunately, while each student’s situation will be different, there are some good guidelines available.

About the ISEE and SSAT

The ISEE and SSAT are run by separate companies (and the SSAT is NOT affiliated with the company that runs the SAT), but test fairly similar skills.  They also both offer a lower, middle and upper level test for students in different grades.  However, there are some key differences between them.

The SSAT at a glance:

  • Offered 8 times throughout the year (standard test dates) at designated test centers, with the ability to schedule 1 “flex date” with a private educational consultant.  The test can technically be taken unlimited times (not recommended!)
  • The middle level is for students in grades 5-7, looking for admission to grades 6-8.
  • The upper level is for students in grades 8-11, looking for admission to grades 9-12.  Notice that 8th graders and high school juniors take the same test!  Because of this, they do curve the test for each grade level.
  • Material the test  covers:
    • Math (Quantitative) – arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and other concepts
    • Reading – comprehension of passages ~300 words in length, with questions about the main idea, inferences, details, and arguments
    • Verbal – synonyms and analogies
    • A written essay, which is unscored but sent to schools
  • Incorrect answers lose 1/4 point
  • Paper and pencil only


The ISEE at a glance:

  • Offered at varying dates by certain schools and independent test centers.  A student may only take the test 1 time per “test season”, defined as Aug-Nov, Dec-Mar, and Apr-Jul.  For most students, this will limit them to at most 2 opportunities to take the test.
  • The middle level is for students in grades 5-7, looking for admission to grades 6-8.
  • The upper level is for students in grades 8-11, looking for admission to grades 9-12.  Similar to the SSAT, they do take grade level into account for scoring.
  • Material the test covers:
    • Math (Math achievement and quantitative reasoning) – similar concepts to the SSAT, with the addition of quantitative reasoning, which requires students to evaluate two statements or equations and say if they are the same, or one is larger than the other
    • Reading – similar content to the SSAT
    • Verbal – synonyms and sentence completion
    • A written essay, also unscored but sent to schools
  • No penalty for incorrect answers
  • Paper and pencil, also online available


How to Choose

As you can see, the biggest differences are that on the verbal, the SSAT has analogies while the ISEE has sentence completion, and on the math the ISEE has an additional section testing math reasoning.  Because of the amount of overlap between the tests, most students will end up scoring pretty similarly (they do use different scoring systems, but can still be compared).  Also, virtually every private school in our area will take either test for admissions (always check first with potential schools to make sure their policies haven’t changed!).

So what are parents and students to do?  One option is to just pick a test and go with it.  There’s nothing really wrong with this strategy, and it will work out fine for most students (since they would end up scoring similarly on either test).  The second option is to find out at the beginning of the process if one test is a lot better for a student.  This involves taking one of each test (we administer practice tests most weeks throughout the year) in a low-pressure setting so scores can be directly compared (tests taken with us are NOT reported anywhere else).   The only downside to this strategy is it can be a lot of testing, particularly for younger students, but to help mitigate this there can be a sizable gap in between when they take the two tests.

At the end of the day, these tests are an important part of admissions but by no means the entire story, so it’s important for students (and parents!) to keep them in perspective.  The student’s grades, recommendations, interview, and other factors all play an important part in admissions.  Putting together a test plan and preparing properly can lower everyone’s stress level around these tests as well.

Still have questions?  Give us a call at 610.688.6441 to discuss your student’s particular situation, or follow the link below for how we can help students do their best on either the SSAT or ISEE.