We Are Westridge

A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests


The ISEE: What It Is, Why We Use It, and How to Prepare

by Director of Admission & Enrollment Management Sarah Jallo

It’s the time of year when interviews are in full swing, and I get a lot of questions about entrance exams. Questions range from how to prepare to why do we require testing and what does it really tell us. I thought it worth sharing some thoughts on standardized testing, specifically the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) that Westridge uses in the admission process. But to do so, we actually need to start by talking about grades.

Why do we require the ISEE?

The short answer is one that opens itself to more questions than it answers; we cannot rely on grades alone to communicate the aptitude, ability, and skills needed to be successful in our given institutions. And here is where things get tricky. An A at one school is not necessarily equivalent to an A at another school. Was that A earned through content knowledge alone or did one school weight participation and homework in higher percentages that raised or lowered that grade? Were they covering material that was less or more challenging than a similarly named course at another school? What was the pace of the course and how quickly did the student pick up new material? Did the student earn that A because they understood it the first time around, or were they able to keep practicing and re-doing assignments until that A was eventually earned? I am not passing judgment on any of these educational approaches, but it does mean that all transcripts are not created equally.

What does the ISEE tell us?

Given the ambiguous nature of grades and the fact that more progressive schools often do not use grades at all, entrance exams are a standardized measurement to see how students perform under similar conditions with similar content. The timed element places constraints upon the student so we can understand their ability to pace themselves and think, read, and problem solve within a set timeframe.

The score report places that student on a spectrum of where they are currently performing in relation to other students in the same grade. The ISEE, for example, uses a percentile rank and stanine scale and is always scored so that only a small percentage of students can get in the top stanines (7, 8, 9) and the lower stanines (1, 2, 3) – both at 23%. The majority (54%) will fall in the 4, 5, and 6 range. This means that no matter who takes the test in a given year, it will be scored so that 23% are in the lower range, 54% are in the middle range, and 23% are in the higher range. Breaking it down even further, only 4% of test takers will be at the highest level (9) and 3% will be at the lowest level (1). (You can see the distribution of percentiles and stanines on ISEE’s website.)

We recognize the test is not perfect for many reasons, which is why it is only one piece of the academic picture when we look at evaluating candidates (Westridge also uses transcripts and teacher evaluation forms to help form this picture). But one can see how it becomes an important piece to more fully understand the academic readiness of an applicant when, although most students’ transcripts look very similar, they come from schools with quite different expectations.

How do I prepare my child for it?

The ISEE is designed to challenge students. There will be concepts she has not learned yet, and that’s perfectly natural. It is not content based, so she can’t study a bunch of new facts and be ready for the test. It is assessing reasoning skills, reading comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving – concepts that are learned over time and not something that can be prepped for in just a few weeks.

The ISEE is designed to challenge students. 

My greatest fear in writing this blog is that it will fuel anxiety about the test or that parents will feel pressure to run out and sign up for test prep classes or tutoring. I do understand the fear and therefore the pressure to do so―no one wants their child to be at a disadvantage, but it’s best to be discerning when deciding how to proceed with this. And remember that children are watching to see how you are feeling about the exam to understand how they need to feel about it.

The biggest barrier to doing well is student trepidation, which can be greatly reduced by helping your daughter understand what she will encounter on the test. The good news is there is a free resource right on the ISEE website: What to Expect on the ISEE. It walks you through sample problems, explains the different sections and timing, and provides practice tests. If your child can spend a little time reviewing this site, then it won’t feel new or unknown when they sit down to take the exam. They’ll know “what to expect on the ISEE” and it will provide them with the confidence and calm to let their natural skills shine. And while I am not an advocate of using test prep companies, if you decide to go this route, make sure they are focused on teaching test-taking strategies, not content. In addition, I would be leery about companies that promise they can deliver a large increase in scores―research does not support that claim.

The biggest barrier to doing well is student trepidation, which can be greatly reduced by helping your daughter understand what she will encounter on the test.

In closing, it is important to understand that each school will look at the elements in an admission file in different ways. What is very important to one school, may be less important to another. Westridge is looking for bright, curious, and engaged students who will thrive in our curriculum that is challenging, meaningful, and relevant. Therefore, academic readiness and a proven track record of academic success are important traits we look for in applicants. And while we recognize and believe that one test taken on one day of a student’s life is not the summation of who they are or the potential they have, it does help give us a more holistic view of a student’s academic profile.

Looking for more info from our admission office? Click here to read Sarah's blog on her top admission tips for prospective students and families, or click here to find out more about our admission process.

Posted by Samantha Chaffin in upper school, middle school, lower school, admission on Friday December, 13, 2019


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day school for girls, grades 4–12

324 Madeline Drive
Pasadena, California 91105
Phone: 626-799-1153
Fax: 626-799-9236

Westridge School admits students of any race, color, religion, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation in administration of its educational policies, admission policies, tuition assistance programs, athletic, and other school-administered programs.

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