During the 2021-2022 fall testing cycle, nearly 300 Houston-area students prepared for their ISEE and SSAT private school admissions tests with General Academic. While every child’s situation is unique and we’re unable to guarantee specific results, we are nonetheless delighted to see such excellent outcomes from this year’s cohort. In particular our students taking the ISEE Upper Level for applying to 9th grade did exceptionally well. On average, our ISEE Upper Level students boosted their composite ISEE scores by 1.4 stanines or nearly 20 percentile ranks. 

What is the ISEE test?

The ISEE Upper Level is a peer-normed, standardized entrance exam required by most Houston-area private schools for admission. Most students take the test twice in both fall and winter prior to submitting their applications in January. The test contains 4 scored sections and 1 non-scored essay:

  1. Verbal Reasoning (VR) – 40 questions and 20 minutes
  2. Quantitative Reasoning (QR) – 37 questions and 35 minutes
  3. Reading Comprehension (RC) – 36 questions and 35 minutes
  4. Mathematics Achievement (MA) – 47 questions and 40 minutes
  5. Personal Essay – 1 prompt and 30 minutes

Students take the ISEE Upper Level to apply to high school (9th grade), the Middle Level for grades 7 & 8, and the Lower Level for grades 5 & 6. In Houston the Upper Level is the most popular.

How is the ISEE test scored and what is a good score?

ISEE test stanine chart and percentile ranks

When you hear other parents discussing ISEE scores, they are usually referring to stanine scores. To understand a stanine score, take a normal curve which represents the testing population, and divide it into 9 evenly sized slices. In general, a good ISEE score for an academically competitive school is a stanine score of 7, 8, or 9. Stanine scores of 4, 5, and 6 are considered average, and scores of 1, 2, and 3 are below average.

However, defining a “good score” really depends on several factors, including the schools to which you are applying. Very academically rigorous schools like St. John’s, Kinkaid, Strake, and St. Agnes generally prefer high scores like 7 and 8 while more broadly-focused schools like Episcopal, Emery, and Houston Christian are more tolerant of average scores like 5 and 6.

Like most standardized tests including the ACT and SAT, the ISEE is a peer-normed test, which means that students are scored relative to each other. 

Specifically, students will be scored relative to all students at their grade level who have taken the ISEE over the last three years. This is called the Norm Group. It does not include students in the same grade for the year your child takes the ISEE.

Verbal Reasoning – Strongest Section to Start

sample ISEE synonym question "transpire"

The Verbal Reasoning section (VR) is comprised of synonym and sentence completion questions. In reality, this section is mostly a test of a student’s vocabulary, which is generally built over time by continuously reading challenging material. 

In Verbal Reasoning, our students showed a 0.6 stanine increase or nearly 10 percentile ranks from their baseline to their best test score, which is the lowest improvement across all four sections. This is because VR is also the section where students are scoring highest to begin with (60th percentile), and one that requires significant amounts of outside practice and time to otherwise improve dramatically. Conversely, it’s a poor use of a tutor’s time to drill students on thousands of vocabulary words. 

As such, our primary focus is how we can encourage our younger students to read more from an early age and better equip our test prep students to get productive work done independently. Two great ways to help your student improve their verbal reasoning score are using flash cards lists like the ones on Piqosity.com, or having them read books known to improve vocabulary acquisition

Quantitative Reasoning – Most Challenging Section with Biggest Improvement

Sample ISEE upper level quantitative reasoning question

The Quantitative Reasoning section (QR) consists of math word problems and is by far the most challenging section of the ISEE for most Houston students. 

In Quantitative Reasoning our students showed a tremendous 1.9 stanine improvement equivalent to 30 percentile ranks. 

We attribute this improvement to the fact that tutors spend a significant amount of time both remediating math that a student should already know and strengthening the student’s understanding so that they’re better equipped to apply those basic skills to new and novel math questions. For advanced students, tutors will also cover material they have yet to see in school.

Reading Comprehension – Most Competitive Section with Modest Gains

The Reading Comprehension section (RC) is composed of six, ~600 word passages followed by six questions each on topics like the main idea and the author’s intent. 

In Reading Comprehension our students saw a modest improvement of 1.3 stanines or 18 percentile ranks on average. 

Reading Comprehension is the most competitive section of the ISEE in that most students taking this test come from educated family backgrounds, which exposes students to reading from an early age. As such, this educated norm group starts with higher scores and allows for fewer missed questions in order to rank highly compared to the other students.

Mathematics Achievement – Big Score Gains

The Mathematics Achievement section (MA) is similar to Quantitative Reasoning in that it’s comprised of word problems, but tends to include easier calculations and fewer steps.

Similar to the other, more abstract math section, Quantitative Reasoning, our students saw a tremendous 1.75 stanine improvement or 28 percentile ranks. The key takeaway from these big improvements in math is that fractions are tough but can easily be re-learned and improved upon!

Essay – Not Scored But Not Ignored

The Essay, which includes one personal prompt like, “Tell us about a time that you overcame a challenge,” is not scored but is sent directly to the school so that they can see a literally unadulterated sample of the student’s writing abilities. 

Since the essay is not scored, we prepare for this section last and only if time allows. Key strategies include ensuring the student knows how to structure a basic essay, identify what the prompt is asking, and respond in such a way that showcases their personality with examples.

When to Start Preparing for the ISEE

In high stakes, standardized testing, the biggest constraints are always the student’s baseline abilities and time. Therefore, we recommend that students start by taking a diagnostic test the summer before their applications are due the following January.

Most of our students meet for 1 to 1.5 hours a week until they achieve their desired scores on either of two test dates in fall (usually October) or winter (late December or early January). Click here to see when and where the ISEE is offered for 2022-2023.

Summary of Findings:

  1. The two math sections of Quantitative Reasoning and Mathematics Achievement are generally the hardest two sections on the exam, but also where our students showed the most improvement of between 1.75 and 1.9 stanines.
  2. The two English sections of Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comprehension are where our students started with the highest scores; as such these areas showed relatively lower improvements compared to math of between 0.6 and 1.3 stanines.
  3. It’s impossible to guarantee results as students are teenagers (the worst kind of human) subject to multiple pressures beyond both their and our control including innate capabilities, hormones, outside studying, and even sickness and the weather. 

We’re incredibly impressed with our tutors’ capabilities and our students’ hard work this testing cycle, and we’re thrilled that we were able to help them get into the schools of their dreams!

Learn More about General Academic’s ISEE Analysis, Products, and Services


  • Stephen Hayes

    Stephen Hayes is General Academic's Vice President. Stephen created the curriculum for our ISEE, SAT, PSAT, and ACT services, and he is always happy to talk shop about any of your academic needs. Stephen loves to travel abroad, especially if it’s to Iceland! He graduated from Houston Baptist University with a BA in English in 2010, and he has been a Texan since age 4.