What is the ISEE?

What is the ISEE?

The Independent School Entrance Exam, or “ISEE,” is a test that some independent schools use as a part of their admissions process. Test results can also be used for scholarship awards or to determine class placement. For admissions purposes, a higher score on the ISEE can make a student more competitive at a selective school. Families are encouraged to reach out to the schools their student plans to apply to in order to determine ISEE score goals or eligibility requirements. The ISEE is available at a number of grade levels: 

  • Primary ISEE: for students applying to grades 2-4
  • Lower Level ISEE: for students applying to grades 5 and 6
  • Middle Level ISEE: for students applying to grades 6-8
  • Upper Level ISEE: for students applying to grades 9-12

Each version of the ISEE has a different makeup, depending on the relevant skills for that age. Students are allowed to take the ISEE once per testing season for a total of three times during the school year: once between August and November (Fall), once between December and March (Winter), and once between April and July (Summer). It is important to plan your testing timeline to allow for a retest option in another cycle. Commonly, students will test in November, which allows for the option of retesting in December or January, if necessary.

For students applying to an independent high school, they will take the Upper Level ISEE, the version of the test designed for students in grades 9 through 12. The Upper Level ISEE can be administered on either the computer or on paper. The test is composed of five sections:

  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Mathematics Achievement
  • Essay (not scored)

Other than the written Essay component, the ISEE’s four main test sections are composed of multiple-choice questions with four answer choices. Below is a breakdown of the test sections’ format and structure. It is important to note that each section will include randomly distributed “experimental” questions that are not scored as a part of a student’s final results. For example, the Verbal Reasoning section includes 40 total questions, but only 35 questions are scored, and the other 5 questions are unscored, which allows for use in future versions of the test. 

The ISEE is designed by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). Students can take the ISEE at approved ERB school test sites. Registration for the ISEE is available online, by mail, and by phone. ISEE test dates vary by year and by location. The registration fee depends on the method of registration and testing. Learn more about the registration process on the ERB website

Upper Level ISEE Test Format & Structure

SectionTimingNumber of QuestionsContent
Verbal Reasoning20 minutes40 multiple-choice questions (5 unscored questions)19 synonyms, 21 sentence completions
Quantitative Reasoning35 minutes37 multiple-choice questions (5 unscored questions)18-21 word problems, 14-17 quantitative comparisons
Reading Comprehension35 minutes36 multiple-choice questions (6 unscored questions)6 reading passages and 6 questions per passage
Mathematics Achievement40 minutes47 multiple-choice questions (5 unscored questions)13-17 algebra, 8-13 data analysis and probability, 5-8 geometry, 5-11 number sense, and 5-8 measurement
Essay30 minutes1 written essay1 personal writing prompt, Unscored

While the Upper Level ISEE is most often administered to 8th grade students applying to high school, it can be administered to 8th through 11th grade students. Therefore, students will encounter material (especially in the Mathematics Achievement section) that may not be taught until 9th or 10th grade. For some 8th grade students, they may see questions they have not learned before because of this aspect of the test. 

The Essay portion of the test requires students to respond to a personal writing prompt, giving students an opportunity to display some aspect of their personal characteristics, opinions, and writing ability. Schools are interested in examining a student’s ability to express themselves, organize their thoughts, and address a topic in a logical manner.  For more information on the test format and structure of the Primary, Lower, and Middle Level ISEEs, take a look at the data provided on the ERB website.   


For the ISEE, students receive a scaled score, percentile, and stanine score for each section of the test. The most commonly referenced score on the ISEE is the stanine score. The Essay section is not scored, but a copy of the essay is sent with the ISEE score report to the school the student is applying to. 

Raw Score: Students receive one point for each correct answer, and no points are awarded for incorrect answers or unanswered questions. 

Scale Score: Raw scores are converted into scaled scores. This conversion adjusts for the variation in difficulty between different tests. Thus, a lower raw score on a harder test could give you the same scaled score as a higher raw score on an easier test. Scale scores range from 760 to 940.  The average is approximately 850.

Percentile Score: Percentiles compare a student’s scaled score to all other same-grade students from the past three years. This is important to understand because the ISEE is taken by students in a range of grades. The Upper Level ISEE percentile score is based on the performance of other students applying to the same grade, so a student applying to 9th grade will not be compared to a student applying to 12th grade. A student’s percentile indicates they are scoring the same or higher than that percentage of students in the same grade. For example, if a student scores in the 60th percentile, they are scoring the same or higher than 60% of students in the same grade, but lower than 39% of students. 

Stanine Score: The percentile is converted into a stanine score from 1 to 9. Percentile ranges from 1 to 10 are in the stanines 1 and 2. Percentile ranges from 11 to 39 are in the stanines 3 and 4. Percentile ranges from 40 to 76 are in the stanines 5 and 6. Percentile ranges from 77 to 95 are in the stanines 7 and 8. The highest stanine is stanine 9 for the 96th to 99th percentiles. Most students who take the ISEE achieve scores in the middle ranges between stanines 4 to 6. Only the top 4 percent of all test takers receive a stanine of 9 on any given section. 

Find more information about our current ISEE class offerings here: HSPT/ISEE Class Selection. For more information about the ISEE or ISEE tutoring, contact us at [email protected]