You think you’ve got all your ducks in a row for the school admissions process, then…SURPRISE! There’s an admissions test you never knew about—or even heard of. We talked to Mark Wright, M.S., Center Director for The Tutoring Center, Houston, about the tests you can expect to find when applying at Houston schools and how to prepare your kids for them.
HFM: What’s the range of admissions testing requirements in Houston schools?
MW: Most independent schools will tell you that the testing requirements are only a piece of the puzzle. Most require teacher recommendations and transcripts, as well as interviews, etc. Still, there are five common tests in Houston.
HFM: What are some of the types of admissions tests parents can expect to encounter in Houston schools?
MW: The most common is ISEE. There are 3 levels, starting with students applying for middle school who are enrolled in 4th and 5th grades. They then have a middle- and upper-level test for upper- middle- and high-school admissions. For younger students, schools will often use the Stanford test, as this is commonly taken in public schools in grades 1-5, so many parents have access to them. Some schools will take one of the Wechsler tests for elementary or pre-k/kinder levels. These tests measure IQ and are popular for early education because they can be completed without reading.
HFM: What is typically tested in these tests?
MW: In the very early grades, this is mostly about reasoning and cognition. These tests are supposed to measure IQ, but as you might expect, there is a lot of outside environmental influence on these tests. They are often filling in missing pieces of pictures, and recognizing objects. The Stanford test changes by grade level in order to measure expected outcomes as children age, but it covers most of the categories one would expect, including reading comprehension, decoding skills, math computation, spelling, logic and reasoning, etc. The ISEE is divided into 3 sections. The first section is the “reasoning” section and is composed of two subtests: reading and quantitative. These are designed to demonstrate “learning ability.” The verbal questions are mostly designed to demonstrate grammar, vocabulary strengths, and verbal relationships (depending on age level), and the quantitative reasoning is word problems. The second section is divided into reading comprehension and math achievement (numerical problem solving based on grade level). There is also an ungraded written essay section that is forwarded to the chosen schools as part of the student “picture.” Stanford and ISEE both group students’ scores into percentiles, meaning you are compared to how others perform, not to how well you did, necessarily. ISEE also uses stanines, which basically just regroups the percentiles into 9 groups.
HFM: How can a parent determine which test each school requires?
MW: Generally, schools list this in their admission requirements online. You can also call the school and ask. Some schools won’t disclose which test they are using so that parents won’t prepare for it through outside tutoring. Generally, you can assume that from grade 4 up, they are most likely using the ISEE. If they are using a different test, it is probably structured very similar to that test.
HFM: How can parents best prepare their kids for these admissions tests?
MW: This is tricky. In many cases, the best preparation is the act of preparing. Students who understand the structure of these tests perform better, and feel more comfortable taking them. In most cases, outside tutoring as a cram session will have a minimum impact on overall score. Sometimes this can actually raise the stress levels of a student. If you plan to seek outside assistance with a standardized test of this type, you are better off starting well in advance. All these tests measure, at least to some degree, student cognition. Cramming sessions will help a student understand the process, and might improve some core math skills or vocabulary, but the cognition pieces require familiarity and practice in problem solving, both verbal and mathematical. Parents should be working on this at least 6 months prior to the test. The Wechsler tests are very hard to prepare for, because all children progress at different rates, and these two tests are specifically designed to measure IQ, which is notoriously difficult to manufacture through preparation. Still, regular familiarity with testing procedures, and logical problem solving will improve performance. Each test does have sections on general knowledge, vocabulary, and object identification, so the more general knowledge students possess, the better they will perform on these tests overall. Finding a good preschool, or a good tutoring program can help with the common knowledge sections of this test. There are some good books out there that provide age-appropriate vocabulary and math skills. Finding a good teacher supply store will help, but again, trying to prepare a month before the test will probably work against you.
HFM: How heavily do test results weigh in the admissions process? Are other variables considered?
MW: This depends heavily on the school, although most schools will tell you that they consider many factors. In many cases, these scores help the schools decide at a very high level. By that I mean, if a school has 100 applications, it will immediately weed out any that don’t meet their minimum qualifications, don’t have teacher references, or don’t do well in an interview, etc. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, this leaves 75 students for 60 slots. The schools will look at the test scores to help them determine which students to fill in those spots.
HFM: Generally, when are these tests conducted for the following school year’s admissions?
MW: Testing is conducted year round, but the high season for ISEE is December through March. If you are planning to take one of these tests, and you want to seek outside assistance, you should be working on it over the summer at the latest.