Changes to the ISEE

Along with the SSAT, the ISEE is one of the most popular tests taken by students applying to private schools. The SSAT and ISEE used to be nearly identical tests. However, in the fall of 2009, the ISEE changed significantly, particularly the Middle Level and Upper Level versions of the ISEE. These changes, which are most prominent in the two math sections of the ISEE, have drastically altered the nature of the ISEE and the preparation regimen necessary to succeed on it.

The Upper Level ISEE is offered to students in grades 8-11, but is primarily taken by 8th grade students applying for entrance to 9th grade. The pre-2009 edition of the ISEE covered a variety of math topics that were challenging but reasonable for 8th grade students. These topics included (but were not limited to) fractions, decimals, percentages, basic exponents, and fundamental algebra and geometry. While very little information is made public about the ISEE, it would logically follow that a large number of 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students taking the ISEE were scoring exceptionally highly on these math sections that had been built for 8th graders. Thus, high schools admissions offices likely had trouble differentiating between the older candidates.

To compensate, the ISEE math sections were altered to include far more difficult material. Some of the math topics that the Upper Level ISEE currently includes are matrices, compound probability, trigonometry, and imaginary numbers. Even questions about basic math concepts are phrased in complex ways that ensure that very few questions are easy for 8thgrade students.

Students applying to private schools are met with new challenges with the changes to the ISEE.

The increased math difficulty level has made preparing for the ISEE all the more important. At Cardinal Education, we are seeing many students come in and score exceedingly poorly on their initial diagnostic ISEE. Fortunately, many students improve their scores significantly after a thorough training regimen, including a number of practice tests. However, students who continue to get flustered by unfamiliar and exceedingly complex math questions need to hedge their ISEE score by also taking the SSAT. (Most schools that accept the ISEE will also accept the SSAT).

On the other hand, the new difficulty level can actually serve as an advantage for students who have prepared thoroughly for the exam. Well-prepared students have three advantages over their fellow 8th graders:

  1. Having clear expectations of how difficult the ISEE math section is, they will be able to keep a cool head when encountering extremely complex material that may faze their unprepared peers.
  2. They may be able to learn in advance some of the more straightforward high school-level math that will show up on the ISEE, giving them a leg up on the other 8th grade students, many of whom will not come across these concepts until 10th or 11th grade.
  3. Because the ISEE is graded on a curve, students can miss several questions while still outperforming their 8th grade peers. On the 2011-12 Upper Level ISEE, a student missing 14 math questions (out of 74) still scored in the 95th percentile on the math sections. Unlike the SSAT, where a few careless errors can cause a significant drop in percentile, the Upper Level ISEE math section gives clever, well-prepared students an opportunity to shine.

The Middle Level and Lower Level versions of the ISEE have also changed to include more difficult math, though the change is far less drastic than that of the Upper Level ISEE. To see for yourself a sample of the questions found on each version of the ISEE, download a copy of What to Expect on the ISEE from the test-maker’s website.

Test Prep companies have yet to catch up with the changes to the ISEE. None of the ISEE prep books on the market currently include the type of advanced math material found on the Upper Level ISEE. To fill this void, Cardinal Education has published a Math Workbook, designed specifically to prepare students for the difficult math content they will encounter on the new ISEE.

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