Applying to a new school is difficult. You want your child to be happy and successful, surrounded by good friends and caring teachers, and supported by a rigorous curriculum and enriching activities. As if all of the research, endless school visits, and chatter among parents wasn’t stressful enough, you have to worry about taking the the I-S-E-E, a standardized test of the likes which your child has probably never had the displeasure of seeing before.

You see, I see how stressful and angst-provoking this experience can be (did you get my little joke?); I’ve been tutoring students for standardized tests like the ISEE and analyzing Houston schools since I was a freshman in college at Rice University in 2003.

I want every child that walks through my door or types in my web address to able to achieve all that they aspire to, because I believe that a strong education is the best way to ensure many opportunities for a fulfilling life for our youth and a bright future for our society.

Every year there are star students who can scores 8’s and 9’s with seemingly little effort, and there are also the hard workers who impress you with their improvement from a 4 to 7. But every year there’s also the family who thinks they did everything right only to be severely disappointed with their scores. I’ve learned a lot about disappointment–beginning as a toyless kid walking out of the the Toys R’ Us–and later as a management consultant and now as the founder of Piqosity.

The number one thing that I’ve learned and want you to know about disappointment is that avoiding it is easy as long as you have the right expectations and know what to expect and do. You, the parent, need to know what the ISEE entails, what your child is capable of, and take the steps necessary to get the results you need or desire.

Don’t expect these things about the ISEE:

  • Don’t expect your A+ child to score 8’s and 9’s without any effort.
  • Don’t expect a few test taking tips and tricks to have a meaningful score improvement.
  • Don’t expect to take the ISEE once and be over and done with it.

Do expect these things about the ISEE:

  • Do expect there to be tested content that your child has not seen before.
  • Do expect to spend a lot of time refreshing or strengthening tested skills in math and English.
  • Do expect to take the ISEE at least twice.

Now reading through these bullet points, you might think to yourself, “easy,” I’ve got it. But let’s examine a few real life scenarios, and you’ll see how it’s easy to get caught–maybe through no fault of your own–in some common misconceptions.

This material is too hard for my xyz grader, and my child is taking xyz advanced class.

The United States does not have a standardized, national curriculum, and if we did, you wouldn’t be in the process of applying to an independent school. As a result, schools taking new students rely on standardized tests like the ISEE, SAT, and ACT to compare students from vastly different education backgrounds. Every school’s curriculum is different, and even within that school, every teacher’s classroom (and section even!) is unique still.

The ISEE is meant to be a challenging test, and there will almost certainly be concepts tested that your child hasn’t learned before. Furthermore, not only will there be unlearned concepts, these new concepts will also be tested in a way that your child has likely never seen. This is why standardized tests say they present students with “new and novel” material to see how they reason through it.

My child is taking the xyz test next week and needs to improve by 50%. Can you look at their practice test and show them some strategies to improve their score?

Unfortunately, no, I cannot. I’d love it if acing a peer normed test (or life) was as simple as working through a checklist, but the reality is that no amount of tips and tricks will instantly improve your child’s standardized test score. Just because it’s a “bubble test” does not mean that there’s a secret bubble pattern that will fool the machine into giving you a perfect.

The ISEE, like most standardized exams including the SAT and the ACT, tests learned concepts in math and English. Your child must know how to do fractions and interpret a paragraph. And if for some reason they are weaker in those areas than educators think they should be, it will take time–sometimes a lot of time and even more effort–for you to work with your child to improve their understanding of those concepts.

We have a busy schedule this with xyz activities, and I just want my child to take it the one time so that we can be finished and not stressed.

Everyone has to set their own priorities in life, and most students don’t even need that great of an ISEE score to get into the majority of schools (by mathematical definition, most students have to be average, which is scores of 4, 5, and 6).

But if your child needs to improve their score, please register to take the ISEE at least twice to give them more opportunities to do their best. After all, do you really want to leave their score up to whether or not last night’s chicken dinner set well in their stomach? Note that the option to take the ISEE three times has only been around since fall of 2016. The first opportunity is in summer, but many schools are saying they will not accept scores from that first test date.

Some tips to help set your expectations:

Many of your children are scheduled to take the ISEE for the first time this November so let me give you these tips:

  1. Know that scores should improve between testings in fall and winter.
  2. Track predicted scores and ensure that your child is doing enough practice on Piqosity and learning from their mistakes.
  3. Help get your student into the right mindset for test preparation.

Scores should improve from November to January.

Please do not expect the scores from this test to be the final, “keepers.” And do not send these scores to schools by default. Most schools only want to receive one set of scores.

If you select schools to receive your scores at registration at, you will a) have no control over what the school sees and b) do exactly what they told you not to do when you most likely later send scores in January.

Since students are able to take the ISEE up to three times a year, you should look at November’s date as a practice test and continue to prepare for January. If your child scores all 9’s, then just be pleasantly surprised, but don’t expect it.

According to research conducted by ACT, the number one proven way to improve a student’s score on the ACT is to take it multiple times. In the ACT’s analysis, the average improvement from the first test to second test was nearly 15 percentile ranks.

In ISEE terms, 15 percentile ranks is an improvement of nearly two stanines (i.e. 4 to 6), and while the ISEE is not the ACT, the same premise certainly holds true.

Between November and January, more concept review and practice will increase your child’s confidence with the tested material and test format and statistically lead to a higher score.

Practice, practice, practice but also review and learn.

We developed Piqosity to continuously update its predicted ISEE score after each practice set. Assuming your child does enough practice, this prediction has proven to be very precise. Log in yourself or ask your child or tutor to show you the scores.

Students should try to complete a minimum of 75 practice questions a week, which is equivalent to about half of an ISEE test and about an hour of work.

Standardized test scores don’t just magically improve by 15 percentile ranks between multiple testings. They improve because students practice, learn from their mistakes, and review the tested concepts.

Your child must be doing more than mindlessly working through practice sets (you know the look). They need to make a concerted effort to understand why they missed questions and go the next step to relearn or reinforced the tested math or English topic.

Ensure that your child wants their score to improve.

In order to achieve desirable gains from test prep, your child has to want to improve. No amount of practice tests or expensive tutoring will improve their score if your child “zombies” through prep time or races through the actual test randomly bubbling answers just to be finished.

The psychology of child motivation is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but here are some summary points from psychology research on this topic:

Motivation is a powerful force in how we determine actions, and it is influenced by many forces. However, at the core of motivation lies simple instinctive action, either to gain incentives or to reduce drives. By discovering the source of your child’s motivation, you can develop a rewards structure, giving them incentives for doing well in school.

Make sure that you are not accidentally rewarding undesired behaviors, and make sure that your system is based on rewards, not punishments. Rewards are known to be much more effective in shaping behavior than punishments, and punishing undesired behaviors may backfire, leading the child to become spiteful and refuse to play along.

In short, the best case scenario is that your child values higher scores and intrinsically wants to do better. Try to show them the value of preparing for the ISEE as a content test of valuable skills versus simply a standardized tests of trivial information. If students can understand the importance of possessing a firm grasp of math and english, and truly want to attend the school you hope they get into, the desired ISEE scores will be significantly easier to achieve.

Learn more about the ISEE with our free prep guides:

And register for your free trial today to get access to 7 full length practice tests:

shelby-joe-500pxShelby Joe is the founder of Piqosity. He has been tutoring students since 2003, when he was a freshman at Rice University. His research and publications include The Houston School Survey, Thesis Magazine, and the annual “Houston’s Best Magnet Schools” analysis of Houston’s school choice lottery.

ISEE® is a registered trademark of the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). Piqosity is neither affiliated with nor endorsed by ERB.