All you need to know about standardised testing for school applications in the US
With the start of fall, Hong Kong families applying to schools abroad are thinking about applications and standardised tests: the SSATs and ISEEs. Preparing to study at an American school ideally starts 2-3 years ahead of time, so students can familiarise themselves with schools, fill out applications, and prep for standardised admissions tests. As a learning specialist with expertise in linking advances in neuroscience to education, I have prepared children for these tests for over 30 years and guided families and advisors through the entire process or at key stages along the way. There truly are some “frequently asked questions,” so here are some tips for how to think about this process.
What are the two tests? How do I register my child for them?
The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is typically required by independent day schools, while boarding schools require the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test). There are exceptions, and some schools will accept either. Find out if a school that accepts both exams prefers one over the other. Both have a Middle (grades 6-8) and Upper (grades 9-12) level.
When should my child take the test?
Both tests are offered several times throughout the year. Typically, applicants sit for them Saturday mornings in early December or January. A number of Hong Kong and Chinese schools serve as test sites. The tests take 2½ to 3 hours, including breaks.
What is the format of the tests? What do they assess?
The ISEE and the SSAT use a multiple choice format to assess reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and language (verbal) skills. The verbal sections cover ability to generalise and use critical thinking with complex language. They both also have two math sections, plus a handwritten essay prompt. The math sections covers a range of traditional math content. The essay is used to assess ability to develop and support an idea, vocabulary usage, and grammar/mechanical skills. It is not scored but is forwarded to prospective schools with test scores.
How do I register my child, given where we live, timeframe, or need for accommodations?
Parents can register online for both tests. The ISEE is typically administered as a group exam with a test booklet and Scantron (‘bubble’) form. Prometric administers a computerised version on different dates and locations. The computerised ISEE (no booklet/Scantron) may or may not be advantageous for your child.
The SSAT is administered only in booklet format. FLEX testing (individual or small group) on customised dates is also offered, but is only given in booklet format. Some schools offer Open FLEX testing for their students and for children who attend other local schools. Hong Kong and China test sites are listed on the SSAT site. Students with diagnosed learning or attention issues can request test accommodations at the time of registration for the tests.
There are pluses and minuses to the booklet and the computerised version (ISEE only), and to individual/FLEX versus group test administration. Which is better depends on your child’s learning style, temperament, and comfort with tests.
What are the main differences between the tests?
- SSAT assesses verbal critical thinking through analogies. ISEE uses sentence completion questions.
- ISEE math includes higher-level content than the SSAT.
- ISEE can only be taken once every six months; Students are permitted to sit for the SSAT more frequently.
- SSAT penalises (¼ point off) for errors; there’s no ‘guessing penalty’ for errors on the ISEE.
- ISEE runs longer (around 30 minutes) than the SSAT.
- ISEEs can be taken as a computerised individual test through Proquest; the SSAT stays as a booklet format for all standard and FLEX dates.
How important is my child’s performance on the test?
Standardised testing is one way schools evaluate candidates, and schools have different benchmark expectations for admission. It provides normative information about students who come from a range of places and educational backgrounds. Although some schools ask prospective students to write an essay during their interview, the essay on the ISEE or SSAT is another way they can assess how students organise and communicate their thoughts in writing. Schools consider these results, along with a transcript, application (which includes short essays), and getting to know the student through an interview and the application process.
Are there any special considerations for Hong Kong students?
Standardised tests require working independently, and across a wide swath of material. This can be quite stressful for students who are accustomed to 1:1 tutoring and whose stamina and confidence are not fully in place yet.
Also, there are very few prior tests released as practice material, the testing organisations do not publish their norms, and much of the practice material published by test prep companies is not at the same level of difficulty of the actual tests.
Lastly, for students for whom English is a second language, the language demands on these tests can be challenging. Reading comprehension passages on unfamiliar topics, word problems, analogies, and other real-context language usage. That’s why, when working with children, I use test prep as an opportunity to help them develop these skills. These skills will help them for the test and for when they attend an American school.