Understanding the ISEE

If this is your first time participating in the private school admissions game, you’ve probably caught wind of the anxiety most parents and students have about the ISEE. In an effort to help you condense and digest the massive amount of information available online (and dispel common myths about the exam), we’ve compiled a central ISEE resource here.

Hopefully, after reading this FAQ, you’ll feel enlightened, energized, and ready to tackle the most important part of the admissions process: selecting the right school for your child!

What is the ISEE?

The ISEE, or, the Independent School Entrance Exam, is a measure used by independent elementary and secondary schools to discern the academic abilities of applicants, and concurrently, eligibility for admission.

For admission to grades 5-12, the most common entry points of matriculation, there are three levels of the exam:

The Lower Level Exam: for application to 5th and 6th grade
The Middle Level Exam: for application to 7th and 8th grade
The Upper Level Exam: for application to 9th-12th grade

It is worth noting that there are now versions of the ISEE for students applying to grades 2-4. These exams veer significantly from the content and format of the Lower, Middle, Upper Level exams, so they will not be covered in this FAQ.

There are five sections of the ISEE. Four of these sections are scored on a stanine scale* of 1-9, including Verbal Reasoning (VR), Quantitative Reasoning (QR), Reading Comprehension (RC), and Math Achievement (MA). The fifth section, the Essay, is un-scored and simply sent to admissions directors for review.

Verbal Reasoning? Quantitative Reasoning? Can you explain what these words actually mean?

In layman’s terms, here’s what each of these sections contains:

Verbal Reasoning: This section is a test of vocabulary. Plain and simple.
Quantitative Reasoning: This section is composed of math word problems that are assembled in confusing ways.
Reading Comprehension: This section contains boring reading passages with tricky questions.
Math Achievement: This section contains honest-to-goodness math—the straightforward stuff you see in your child’s workbooks in school.

How do I interpret the ISEE score report? What are scaled scores, percentiles, and stanines?

Test Profile

This portion of the report provides information about the student’s overall performance on four test sections: Verbal Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Reasoning, and Mathematics Achievement. The Test Profile reports ISEE scores both as scaled scores and as percentile ranks with reference to ISEE norms. These norms are based on independent school applicants in the same grade who have taken the ISEE during the past three years.

Scaled Scores

ISEE scaled scores for each section range from 760 to 940. The scaled score is more useful than the raw score because the scaled score has the same meaning regardless of which version of the test was used. ERB administers many different versions of the test each year. The scaled score takes these slight differences into account and allows ERB to report a score on a common scale that has the same meaning for all students, regardless of version taken.

Percentile Ranks

This is where the student stands relative to all students in the same grade who took this test over the past three years; it is not the percentage of questions the student answered correctly. A percentile rank of 63 on an ISEE test section, for example, indicates that the student scored as well as or higher than 63 percent (and lower than 36 percent) of all students in the norm group.

Note: the group of students at this grade level who took a form of this test over the past three years is quite different from the group of students who took the standardized test the student may have taken as part of a large-scale testing program.

Parents are frequently surprised when they see, for example, a 75th percentile score for a child who scored at the 95th percentile last year on a test based on state or national norms. The ISEE norm group is much more selective.


This is an abbreviated version of the percentile. While there are 99 percentile ranks, which are ideal for fine distinctions among students, the stanine has only 9 possible values and divides students into nine groups:


Sign up for a free diagnostic ISEE with ArborBridge and receive a fully customized score report just for your child.

So what score does my child need to be admitted to the best schools? What is a good score on the ISEE?

These are undoubtedly the most common questions we receive. A student’s scores on the ISEE—her stanines—are a point of fixation for many families. After chatting with admission directors at the best independent schools in LA and NYC, we’ve uncovered several things:

1) Stanines of 5 or above are usually enough for a student to be ‘in the running’ at a top school. This cutoff score may vary from school to school, particularly those that are more competitive and academically rigorous. We’ve also heard the expression, ‘With a 4 you’re in the door!’ So there’s a chance that a ‘good ISEE score’ can dip as low as a 4.

2) Your child’s previous standardized test scores (e.g. the ERBs, CTP4s, STAR Testing, etc.) have little predictive power when it comes to the ISEE. For instance, it is not uncommon for a child to score in the 95th percentile on the Math Achievement section of the CTP4s and then score below the 50th percentile on the ISEE. This is because…

3) The ISEE is a test of exceptionalism among an incredibly bright, competitive pool of test-takers. The exam is meant to highlight students who have extraordinary verbal, reading, and math abilities (i.e. those who score stanines of 7-9 per section). The majority of test-takers score somewhere in the 4-6 range on each section of the exam.

It is also worth pointing out that the CTP4s and other annual standardized tests are designed for schools to understand their proficiency in teaching fundamental math, reading, and language concepts. These exams contain much less sophisticated content than the ISEE, which explains the preponderance of higher scores.

4) Students who attend schools with less intensive math programs tend to score lower than their peers on Quantitative Reasoning and Math Achievement; however, these same students often see the biggest increases after preparing with a private tutor.

5) Admission directors are looking to build balanced classes of students. For many schools, this means accepting a wide range of applicants, not just those who show a penchant for academics and standardized tests. Other components of the application—especially the parent interview—may outweigh performance on the ISEE.

When and where can my child take the ISEE?

UPDATE: The ERB announced that students will now be able to take the ISEE multiple times within three distinct testing windows. Learn more here.

Students may register to take the ISEE one time in any or all of three testing seasons. The ISEE testing seasons are defined as Fall (August–November), Winter (December–March), and Spring/Summer (April–July). Application deadlines for most independent schools are in late January or early February. Accordingly, students will want their final sitting to take plane in December or January in order to meet these deadlines. Paper score reports are mailed to families 2-3 weeks after exam; however, online score reports are ready and can be viewed online the week following the exam. This can be facilitated most easily after registering for test dates and creating an online account on the ERB website.

How do I register my child for the ISEE?

Visit the ERB website to register. As mentioned, there are mailing and phone registration options as well, but they are way less convenient in the long-run (see below).

Advantages to online registration:
1) View and reserve a seat at testing location
2) Edit student information
3) Edit recipients of score reports
4) Reprint verification letter/admission ticket
5) Change testing location
6) Request to receive ISEE scores online (additional $30 fee)
7) Submit late registration up to two weeks before testing date ($20 additional fee)

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