I asked my old friend Jonathan Arak of The Princeton Review to fill Abacus Mom readers in on what’s happening with middle school and high school admissions tests.  Jonathan and I, who work with some of the same families (he tutors for the tests, I edit essays and do interview prep), both noticed very early on this year that the ISEE Lower Level scores were off.

I have known Jonathan since 1985, when he was president of Hunter College High School’s student government and I was recording secretary.  Jonathan went on to become one of the most renowned tutors in NYC as well as the author of a number of Princeton Review high school test prep books.  I’m proud to partner with him.  Here’s his advice on the ISEE and SSAT.


The ISEE went through a major overhaul during Fall 2009. The Educational Records Bureau (the test writers/administrators) changed the exam and issued new practice tests in their “What To Expect” series (now three separate books for the Lower, Middle, and Upper levels), which included for the first time a full-length Lower Level exam.  Though this at first was hoped to be a boon, it has turned out to be much the opposite.

On the new Lower Level exam in the practice test book there are questions dealing with hard exponents and solving for x, which fourth and fifth graders are NOT normally required to know. Similarly, on the new Middle Level exam there were y=mx+b and hard coordinate questions, which are too sophisticated for most sixth and seventh graders. Students had to study these topics, but then it turned out, those new topics WEREN’T on the test after all.  Students who took the real exam told us that it seemed different from what was in the practice book.

Given the problems with the ISEE, I now recommend to my Upper Level clients that they take the SSAT instead.  I have been recommending this for the past two years, since almost all the private day schools in the city now accept it as well as the ISEE. I hear Fieldston and Columbia Prep may be exceptions, so please always double check with the schools to which you are applying. This past fall I only had one student take the ISEE, and she had an experience similar to that had by the Mid and Lower Level students.

In 2010, ISEE scores came in low (stanines of 5’s across the board and such).  However, in 2009-2010, schools seemed to be aware of the discrepancies. All my students DID get accepted to their top choice schools. So after a few weeks of anxiety and hair pulling, all was good again.

Going forward, it’s still going to be tough to figure out exactly what a student needs to know for the ISEE, especially if the ERB does correct the content in their books as it’s unlikely they will announce that made a mistake. If you can check with the schools to which you are applying and find out whether they will accept the SSAT, you will avoid a lot of headaches. Unfortunately, be aware that prepping on your own out of the books from the bookstores will almost assuredly not have your child ready for the test.