Preparing For the Lower Level ISEE

As a rule, test preparation is only as good as the materials used. True, a good teacher can make lessons interesting and can explain new or difficult concepts well. However, if the test preparation materials used do not accurately reflect a test, then there is no way for test preparation to be targeted and make efficient use of time.
The big, commercially important tests have a lot of prep materials available for them. Competition works to keep the overall quality high. With smaller tests taken by fewer students, the situation can be dramatically different. A good example is the lower level ISEE. This is hardly an obscure test, but it is taken by many, many fewer students than the SAT or even the upper level ISEE. It is easy to purchase lower level practice tests, but there aren’t very many of them and the quality is not nearly as good as the quality of materials written for tests with a larger market.
The lower level ISEE is taken by children currently in fourth and fifth grade (who are applying to fifth and sixth grade). A good example of the difference between the official practice test and most published tests can be illustrated by examining fractions. It is common, and appropriate, for children just starting fourth grade to know very little about fractions. Much of fourth grade math is spent teaching this topic. (Students finishing fourth grade should generally have a solid grounding in fractions, though they will usually not have learned how to multiply and divide fractions at that point.)
The official lower level ISEE exam reflects this reality. Fractions are an important part of the test, but most of the questions are about introductory topics such as naming fractions, ordering fractions, and estimating with fractions. Few questions involve fraction operations (i.e., addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) and those that do are relatively simple. This is in contrast to most commercially available practice tests. For instance, the lower level ISEE practice test published by Kaplan includes converting percents to fractions and places a significantly greater emphasis on fraction operations.
The difference in academic level between the Kaplan test and the official practice test is important, but not enormous. Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated because the difference in tone is even greater than the difference in level. The Kaplan test has many fewer word problems and more plain calculation problems. Unfortunately, simply using a different brand of preparation materials is not an easy solution. The practice test published by Princeton Review, for example, has different problems than the Kaplan test, but the problems are of a similar caliber.
As with pretty much any standardized test, the most important preparation for the lower level ISEE occurs in the classroom, during lessons that are not actually aimed at test preparation. However more specialized test prep is often useful. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to waste time and effort on test prep if the materials used don’t mirror the real test accurately. For this reason parents seeking test preparation for the ISEE should be cautious when hiring tutors and avoid companies that rely on materials that are widely published. Hopefully, more accurate lower level ISEE preparation materials will be published soon.

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