SSAT and ISEE: What makes these tests so darn hard?!?

Admissions tests (while this post is focused on the SSAT and ISEE, it’s also applicable to the SAT and ACT) are notoriously difficult for students and confusing to parents, especially when otherwise high-performing students get “low” scores. While there are many possible reasons for a student to under-perform on a test, we’ll tackle some of the most common. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how to help your child succeed on a standardized admission tests. Here are a few reasons students struggle with admissions tests:

1. The Test Cover Years, Not Weeks
Students are used to taking tests that cover a chapter or maybe two in school.  Admissions tests cover material that span years. Think about, when you were in middle school did anyone ever give you an exam that covered 2 – 6 grade material? Did your vocabulary or spelling test ask you to recall words for a whole academic year or test you on all the words you’d been given the entire year and last year? It’s unlikely that any of us went though that until we got to an admission test. This is especially hard when you are use to taking weekly or bi-weekly chapter tests.

2. The Tests Test Reasoning, Using Information

Another factor that complicates taking these tests is how they test information. Most admissions tests test how well you use a narrow range of information (drawn from a broad range of grades) to solve a problem or answer a question. They are designed to see whether you understand how to think outside the box, whether you can apply something you’ve learned in school in a way you’ve rarely, if ever, seen it asked it in school. This is why questions very rarely directly test one and only one application of a particular rule, term, definition, formula, or fact.

3. Admission Tests Value Accuracy and Ignore Effort
In many educational settings, teachers recognize that a student’s performance maybe be misaligned with their understanding. The teacher has weeks if not months to learn that little Johnny does all his work, tries really hard, often does 95% of the work correctly and then 5% incorrectly. A good teacher knows that Johnny has a bad habit of confusing must and may but has the right intentions, even if he says or writes the wrong one. This teacher has learned that little Johnny’s work/understanding and answers are often misaligned and she has the discretion to give him points for the effort  and intention of this work and to forgive some of his careless mistakes. This teacher wants Johnny to do well so she takes into account that on the day she gives the chapter quiz he had a rough morning through no fault of his own, she’ll rightfully consider that when grading his work. Standardized tests can’t, don’t, and won’t take effort, intention, or situation into account. All that matters is filling in the right bubble. Little Johnny is in trouble on a standardized test.

4. Admission Tests Require Specificity
Standardized admission tests are written using a precision of language that most of us don’t use or encounter on a daily basis. This precision applies to math (a number and digits are different), reading (many and most don’t mean the same thing), vocabulary (peruse means the opposite of what most of us think it does and pulchritudinous is not as nasty a word as it sounds), and writing (If you “are you planning on reading more” you should fix the idiomatically incorrect expression in that statement). The strict adherence to dictionary definitions and precise meaning often throws people for a loop when they are use to a more loose interpretation of language.

Understanding these few things will help prep more effectively for the test and maybe even help you prep more long term by integrating these skills into daily life and academic routine.



Bell Curves has spent decades analyzing standardized tests and helping organizations, schools, teachers, parents and students better understand standardized exams. Contact us with questions, comments, or to have us come out to your school and talk to students or teachers about preparing more effectively for these exams.

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