ISEE and SSAT: What's the difference?

Students applying to a private elementary, middle, or high school typically need to take either the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) or the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Exam) as part of the application process.  These tests are not simply mini SATs or ACTs: they are unique tests with some question formats that are not featured on college admission tests.  Students benefit greatly both from choosing the best-fit test (if they are allowed a choice) and from thoughtful test prep.  


Test Levels

SSAT Elementary Level: for application to grades 4-5

SSAT Middle Level: for application to grades 6-8

SSAT Upper Level: for application to grades 9-12


ISEE Primary Level: for application to grades 3-4

ISEE Lower Level: for application to grades 5-6

ISEE Middle Level: for application to grades 7-8

ISEE Upper Level: for application to grades 9-12

Test formats and frequencies

Test formats and frequencies

Within each test are various levels of material geared toward the entire block of test takers.  Depending on his or her age, a student may see content that is two to four grade levels above what s/he currently studies.  The scoring of each test compares the tester only to other testers in the same grade. For example, a student entering fourth grade will take the SSAT for 4-6 graders. Because the material on this test is geared toward a range of grade levels, the rising 4thgrader will see material that is two or more grade levels above his/hers. However, the student will be scored only in comparison to other rising 4th graders, not to rising 5th or 6th graders taking the same test.

Which one should you take?

If your student is applying to a school that accepts either test, it’s worth taking a practice test of each to see which might be a better fit. In addition to the differences noted above, each of these tests also have various characteristics that may be better suited to your student’s strengths. For example, the SSAT verbal section consists of only synonyms and analogies while the ISEE verbal section contains synonyms and sentence completions.  While all of these question types test vocabulary, only sentence completions test vocabulary in context.  The ability to use context clues in sentence completion questions can help a student who may struggle a bit more with vocabulary, which makes the ISEE verbal slightly more forgiving.  In contrast, the math on the ISEE tends to be slightly harder than the math on the SSAT. Not only does the upper level ISEE test a few more advanced topics than does the SSAT, but the ISEE also provides less time per question which raises the test’s difficulty level.  

  Test frequency can also play a role in test choice.  A student can take the SSAT more frequently than the ISEE, which can help families who are working with a compressed testing timeline.  The ability to test more frequently can also help students who may have increased test anxiety and will benefit from taking multiple tests.

  These tests can seem quite confusing due to the multiple test versions, timelines, question types, et cetera, but it’s worth doing some research into which tests your schools will accept and creating a testing timeline to set your child up for success. 

Standardized test curves: The process of equating

People frequently ask me which test date or dates will have the best curve and will therefore give test-takers the greatest scoring advantage. In school, students often lament a well-prepared peer who “ruined the curve” of a particularly challenging classroom test, and most people assume that the same logic also applies to standardized tests.  While standardized test scores are indeed adjusted, the process differs from traditional “curving.”  Unlike school exams that a teacher might curve after s/he administers the test and evaluates student performance and score distribution, standardized tests are curved (a process called “equating”)before the administration of that test.  

  Standardized tests are so named because schools can compare student results across years, providing a consistent scale for student evaluation.  For each test, a student receives a raw score (total number of correct answers) and a scaled score (raw score adjusted to a predetermined scale).  While the raw to scaled score conversion can vary slightly with each test, the overall distribution of scores will be the same. Standardized tests are engineered and scaled such that the score distribution fits a bell curve: most students will score close to the average (the middle part of the curve) and very few will do extremely well or extremely poorly.  (You do not, in fact, get 200 points on the SAT just for putting your name on the test, but if you get even a single question right anywhere in the test, you are likely to earn at least that many points.)  Equating takes into account the difficulty of the questions and anticipates student performance to insure that, regardless of difficulty, test scores will maintain the same distribution.

  The way in which a test is equated can still affect your score. For example, the June 2018 SAT received widespread complaints (google “June 2018 SAT curve” if you like) as high scoring students felt their math scores were lower than they should have been. On this particular test, if a student missed two math questions, s/he received a score of 750.  On previous tests, two missed math questions would have resulted in a 790 or 780.  What’s the difference?  The difficulty level of the test.  The math on the June 2018 SAT was too easy—it did not contain enough hard elements and thus the equating of this test was extreme.  As a result, many students saw their accuracy increase on this test while their scaled score actually decreased.  Arguably College Board should have better engineered the June 2018, but given that the test was easier than normal, it stands to reason that each error would have a greater impact.

  What does all of this mean for you and your student? First, you always want a hard test! The more difficult the material, the better the curve, so each mistake becomes less significant, particularly at the top of the scale.  Second, plan to take multiple official tests to make the most of these slight differences. At the top of the scoring scales, the difference between a 33 and a 34 or a 1550 and a 1570 can be a single question. Third, start your prep and testing early so that you have room in your schedule to add an additional test if needed. 

  Understanding the equating process is just one more step toward reaching your goal score.  By taking multiple official tests and understanding that the degree of difficulty will vary between tests, you can leverage your own content strengths and test-taking skills to achieve your personal best. 

Differences Between the PSAT and SAT

Our last blog post addressed differences between the PreACT and the ACT.  Today we will examine the relationship between the PSAT and SAT as it is fundamentally different that that between the PreACT and ACT.  

There are a few versions of the PSAT that students will take at various points during middle school and high school.  Eighth and ninth graders take the PSAT 8/9.  A variety of talent search programs, including Duke Talent Identification Program (, use these scores to evaluate student eligibility.  Tenth graders take the PSAT 10.  Note that while some scholarship programs use this score in their searches, the National Merit Scholarship Program does not.  Tenth and eleventh graders take the PSAT/NMSQT.  The National Merit Scholarship Program uses this version of the PSAT to evaluate student eligibility.  For the purposes of this comparison, I am using the PSAT/NMSQT.

Format of the PSAT/NMSQT

Reading: 47 questions, 60 minutes (1min16sec/question)

Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes (48 sec/question)

Math Test – No Calculator: 17 questions, 25 minutes (1min28sec/question)

Math Test – Calculator active: 31 questions, 45 minutes (1min27sec/question)

Format of the SAT

Reading: 52 questions, 65 minutes (1min15sec/question)

Writing and Language: 44 questions, 35 minutes (48sec/question)

Math Test—No Calculator: 20 questions, 25 minutes (1min/15sec/question)

Math Test—Calculator Active: 38 questions, 55 minutes (1min27sec/question)

The PSAT/NMSQT is scored on a scale of 1520 total points.  This total score breaks down into two subsections, Math and Verbal, each scored on a scale of 760.  

The SAT is scored on a scale of 1600 total points.  This total score breaks down into two subsections, Math and Verbal, each scored on a scale of 800.

The PSAT’s slightly lower score range accounts for the lower difficulty level and shortened nature of this test.  While the Writing and Language sections are identical in question number and length, the other three sections are extended on the SAT.  The Calculator Inactive math section changes the most from PSAT to SAT as the SAT eliminates almost fifteen seconds per question.  This particular section poses unique obstacles to students who rely on a calculator for basic math computation.

Although the scales of the two tests are not identical, a student’s PSAT score directly equates to his/her predicted SAT score.  For example, if a student scores a 1250 on the PSAT, s/he should score a 1250 on the SAT as well.  Additionally, the PSAT allows students to identify strengths and weaknesses within each subject that can help in SAT preparation.  However, students should take a full-length practice SAT before beginning any SAT prep program, as this is the most accurate way to assess students’ SAT test-taking skills.  

Differences Between the PreACT and the ACT

I always ask students to take a full-length practice ACT before beginning any test prep package. This approach may appear redundant when students already have detailed score reports from their PreACT tests. Success on the PreACT, however, does not always correlate to success on the ACT.  Understanding the difference between these tests along with their respective benefits and limitations is vital to student success with the prep process. (Information regarding the relationship between the PreSAT and the SAT will be discussed in an upcoming blog post.)

The PreACT is intended for high school sophomores, although any high school student can take it.  Schools decide if and when to administer the test and inform students and families of the test date and registration process.  The school will administer the test during a regular school day.  If you have any questions about the testing timeline at your child’s school, reach out to a counselor.  

Because the PreACT is targeted to sophomores instead of juniors, it is somewhat easier than the ACT. Students receive a PreACT score (out of 35) as well as a predicted composite score range and predicted section score ranges for the ACT (out of 36).  Unlike the ACT, the PreACT has no essay section.  The PreACT provides an important introduction to the format and demands of the ACT.  The detailed score report helps students identify general strengths and weaknesses that the student can then work on before taking the ACT.  The included predicted range of ACT scores provides a rough guideline, but does not always predict accurately ACT success.


English: 45 questions, 30 min (40 seconds per question)

Math: 36 questions, 40 min (67 seconds per question)

Reading: 25 questions, 30 min (72 seconds per question)

Science: 30 questions, 30 min (60 seconds per question)

--no essay--


English: 75 questions, 45 min (36 seconds per question)

Math: 60 questions, 60 min (60 seconds per question)

Reading: 40 questions, 35 min (52.5 seconds per question)

Science: 40 questions, 35 min (52.5 seconds per question)

--optional essay section--

In the above breakdown, note the shorter allocation of time per question across all sections, particularly in reading and science.  Students who finish these sections without issue on the PreACT are often surprised to find that they run out of time on those same sections of the ACT. Additionally, the increase in total test time from 2 hrs 10 min to 2 hrs 55 min (longer if the student opts to write the essay) increases fatigue as well as the likelihood of mistakes.

While the PreACT certainly provides a helpful preview of college admissions testing, a full-length practice ACT predicts more precisely performance on the ACT.  The full-length practice test also helps the tutor more accurately assess issues with pacing across all sections which then allows the student to cultivate better pacing strategies from the start.