Students must complete an entrance exam, such as the ISEE or SSAT, to get into independent schools.

ISEE, SSAT, and HSPT: Independent School Testing

Do Private Schools Have Entrance Exams?

Just like colleges, top private schools have entrance exam requirements: the ISEE, the SSAT, or the HSPT. Every summer, families around the country begin the private high school application process. Families must decide between parochial schools or secular independent schools, boarding schools or day schools, or a combination of  different varieties of private schools. However, choosing where to go is just one step of many. For many students, the entrance exam is one of the most stressful steps.

Entrance exam requirements for private high schools can be challenging. Public high schools generally admit every rising 9th-grade student living within the school district. However, private schools are selective, only admitting students who meet their individual admissions criteria. These criteria include academic success, athletic or artistic achievement, legacy connections, and cultural fit.

Standardized test scores from the SSAT, the ISEE, or the HSPT are another factor. However, these three different tests cover relatively similar topics: reading, vocabulary, and math skills. Although the methods of how these topics are tested vary, the knowledge base is generally the same. These tests mostly differ in structure.

What is on the ISEE?

The ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) has four levels: Primary, Lower, Middle, and Upper. Students in grades 8 and up take the Upper Level ISEE for high school admission. The Upper Level ISEE takes approximately two hours and 45 minutes to complete. It consists of five sections:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Mathematics Achievement
  • 30-minute essay

Each multiple-choice section of the ISEE is scored on a scale of 760-940. The percentile results are summarized in a single-digit result known as a “stanine.” The stanine is far more important to the high school admissions process than the score raw score.

ERB, a non-profit organization, created and administers the ISEE. ERB also administers annual progress testing for independent schools, similar to the annual state tests in public schools. Independent day schools and independent boarding schools throughout the U.S. utilize the ISEE for admissions. Students take the ISEE only once per testing season. A “testing season” is a three-month period covering August through November, December through March, or April through July.

Also, ERB strongly discourages students from taking the ISEE multiple times. Students can take the ISEE at the schools to where they are applying, or at a testing center. ERB organizes the administration of the ISEE in four-month seasons, so test dates are flexible. Students can register for the test through the ERB website.

What Subjects Are on the SSAT?

The SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test) includes three levels: Lower, Middle, and Upper. The Upper Level is for students applying for admission for 8th grade or at the high school level.

The Upper Level SSAT takes approximately three hours to complete. It consists of five sections:

  • Quantitative (Math)
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Verbal
  • An unscored writing sample
  • An unscored experimental section

The test is scored on a scale of 1500-2400, but the score percentiles are far more important in the admissions process than the actual points earned. Students can take the SSAT as many times as they would like. Independent schools tend to consider only the best results.

The SSAT, created and administered by a non-profit organization of the same name, is primarily utilized by secular independent schools. Some parochial schools also utilize the SSAT for admissions. The SSAT is administered eight times per school year at independent schools around the world. Also, there is one additional flex testing annually at some local testing centers. Students can register for the test through the SSAT website.

What is on the HSPT?

The HSPT (High School Placement Test) consists of five sections:

  • Verbal
  • Quantitative Skills
  • Reading
  • Mathematics
  • Language Skills

Additionally, the HSPT can include sections in grammar, science, and the Catholic religion. No scaled scores are reported to parents or students. Instead, the official score report shows the percentiles that the student earned in relation to other test takers. The optional sections are not included in the composite score. The HSPT also does not include an essay or writing sample. However, some individual schools will provide and require students to complete a writing sample.

Some schools administer a static version of the test set up by the Scholastic Testing Service (STS). Also, schools can lease different sections of the HSPT and re-order the sections as they see fit. Because of this many Catholic high schools advertise that they have their “own” unique admissions test.

The Scholastic Testing Service is a for-profit corporation. They create, publish, and administer a series of public school state tests and private school yearly assessments. However, the HSPT is mostly utilized for admission by parochial schools, especially Catholic high schools. STS sells or leases the HSPT to parochial schools. Each school has its own unique testing date for applicants to that school. Because of this, a student applying to multiple Catholic high schools may end up taking the HSPT several times.

Which entrance exam is right for me?

The makers of the SSAT, the ISEE, and the HSPT put a great deal of effort into differentiating their offerings to schools. However, from a student’s perspective, the tests are not very different. They are just entrance exams. Because of this, students must build strong reading, vocabulary, and math skills. Also, test-taking and problem-solving techniques are very useful for solving challenging problems.

Because of the tests’ similarities, they should not be a deciding factor in choosing where to apply.