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The demands of the ISEE can be overwhelming for any student, but it can be especially difficult for students with a learning disability and/or ADHD. While there is no magic formula to help a student get a high score, there are steps to help every student get the highest score possible, especially those with learning differences.

1. Make sure students understand that the ISEE is different from other tests

Most students, especially younger ones, are used to standardized tests, such as the CTP5—commonly referred to as the “ERBs”—or the California state tests, that measure the concepts they have learned that year. The ISEE is different. First, students from multiple grade-levels take the same test. The Middle Level ISEE, for example, is given to students applying to enter either seventh or eighth grade (currently in sixth or seventh grade). This means that a sixth grader will encounter questions about concepts he may not learn until seventh grade. That sixth grader’s scores will be based on how he compares to other sixth graders, not to the seventh graders who take the same test. Even when accounting for multiple grade-levels, ISEE questions are designed for a group of higher-than-average achievers. If students understand that no one gets every question correct and they can miss several questions without destroying their chances at a “good” score, it can increase their confidence and reduce their frustration.

2. Apply early for accommodations

ERB, the company that administers the ISEE, will grant accommodations to students who fit their criteria and send proper documentation. It’s important to apply early so the student can prepare for the test under similar conditions as he or she will be taking it. Also, the locations and test dates available will be more limited when the test is taken with accommodations.
The requirements for accommodations, as listed on the ERB website, are:

The student must:

  • have a disability that necessitates testing accommodations.
  • have complete and specific documentation that establishes a current need for the requested accommodations.
  • currently receive and utilize the requested accommodations, due to the disability, on a regular basis for school-based testing in the student’s present school environment.

Types of supporting documentation that may be submitted for ISEE accommodations:

  • Formal Testing – a complete psycho-educational evaluation dated within the last three years
  • An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan from the current calendar year
  • A School Accommodation Plan from the current calendar year
  • Physician Letter – a letter from a medical doctor if the accommodations are required due to a medically treated issue such as an injury, a vision impairment, deafness, paralysis, ADD or ADHD (treated with prescriptions), a psychological condition, or a physical disability.

3. Register early for a test date that allows for a retake

Current ISEE policies allow students to take the ISEE once per “testing season”: Fall (Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov.), Winter (Dec., Jan., Feb., March), and Spring/Summer (April, May, June, July). For a student with a disability, it can be especially reassuring to know he or she has the option to take the test again. Many parents register their children for two test dates, with the option of cancelling the second test date if it’s not needed. The best first test date is probably in November, which allows time to prepare in the fall and the option of a retake in December or early January. A good second test date is right before winter vacation, so the student can relax and enjoy his/her break. Another option for a student who needs as much preparation time as possible is the latest date that will still allow a student’s application to be on time. This date varies with individual schools, so it’s important to check with the school to which a student is applying. High-demand test dates fill fast, so it’s important to register early!

4. Consider whether the computer or paper test is best for the student, and practice with that format

The ISEE is now offered on paper, with group administration, or on the computer (individually administered) at Prometric testing centers. The computer-based test requires all test-takers to type their essay, but there’s no spelling or grammar check. (A student with an accommodation to type his or her essay may also be able to do so during the paper test while completing the rest of the test on paper.) There are currently practice materials available both online and on paper, and many online practice tests can be printed. Work with your student to decide which version would work best for them, and then practice with that format.
Students can begin test preparations at the same time they register for the test and apply for accommodations. Private tutoring, such as the services offered by LA Tutors, is a great way to guide students and parents through the test preparation process.

5. Start preparations early

This is good advice for any test taker, but it’s especially important for students with a learning disability and/or ADHD. If a student tends to get overwhelmed during the year, consider starting preparations the summer before he or she takes the test.

6. Practice the pacing and duration of the test

For many students, the ISEE is the first test where the time limit matters. While other tests are designed to give most students time to comfortably finish each section, even high-achieving students can have trouble finishing certain sections of the ISEE on time. Use practice tests to help students develop a pacing strategy. For example, students who have been taught to underline and make extensive notes on a reading passage—a great strategy for a class text—might find that they run out of time when trying to apply this to the ISEE Reading Comprehension section.
The length of the test is also challenging. Many standardized tests in school are administered with only one or two sections per day. The ISEE requires students to sit for 2 ½-3 hours and complete five test sections with only short breaks in between. It’s especially important for students with learning differences to practice the prolonged concentration the test demands.

WARNING ABOUT EXTENDED TIME: While extended time can be helpful for many students with learning disabilities, it also means a longer test. If the student is taking the paper version of the ISEE, this means every student in the extended time room must wait until the extended time is up for each section. The computerized test also does NOT permit students to skip to the next section when they’ve completed the first. Students can stretch their legs in the testing area and use the bathroom during any extra time. If a student has difficulty staying focused and tends to burn out by the end of the test, extended time may hinder the student more than it helps. Completing a practice test under both the regular and extended time limits can help determine whether extended time would be helpful or not.

7. Prepare with accommodations in mind

If accommodations are granted, the student should incorporate them into test preparation. For example, during practice tests, allow for the time the student will receive (usually 150% for extended time), not the standard time. On the other hand, if accommodations are not approved, it’s extra important to practice under test conditions so the student gets used to what that feels like.

8. Focus on both content and test-taking strategies

Focusing on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and math concepts will help students in school as well as with test preparation. Many parents report that their child’s academic achievement improved after preparing for the ISEE. It’s also helpful, however, to learn test-taking strategies specific to the ISEE. For many students, the ISEE is the first test where strategies, such as using process-of-elimination to make a better guess, can make a big difference in their scores.

9. Work to improve strengths as well as weaknesses

While the focus of test preparation is often on the weaker sections, a student should also focus on his or her strong subjects. Don’t assume that because a student gets good grades in a certain subject it will automatically translate to a good test score. The ISEE questions are probably different from what students are used to seeing in school, so even a strong academic subject deserves attention during test prep time.

10. Remember that a test score is just a test score

It’s important to find the private school that is the best fit for the student, and the ISEE is only one part of the application process. Students should have confidence in themselves and strive to do their personal best.

That said, a good score on the ISEE can only help a student’s application. L.A. Tutors can help students make an individualized study plan, find the right resources, and understand the concepts and strategies needed to earn the highest score possible.

Katherine Friedman

Author Katherine Friedman

As the Program Co-Director at LA Tutors, Katherine is responsible for developing LA Tutors' curricula and contributes to the LA Tutors educational resources and blog. She has over ten years of classroom teaching experience in a variety of settings with diverse groups of learners: in the United States and internationally, special and general education, and public and private school. With a Masters degree in Education, she has been tutoring throughout her career and loves the opportunity to reach students in a one-on-one or small group setting. She began working as a test preparation tutor in graduate school and enjoys helping students build their understanding and confidence of standardized tests, including the ISEE, SAT, GRE, and CBEST.

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