An Equitable Approach to Test Prep and Practice: How Can We Level the Playing Field?

“Does my child’s ISEE score matter in your admission process?”
“How much does it matter?” 
“Should my child engage in test prep for ISEE?” 
“Should we hire a tutor for ISEE?”
“My child has ISEE test prep three times a week for six weeks. Is this too much?”
“I would like to engage in test prep for ISEE, but there is no way I can afford it. What should we do?”

Every independent school admission director has heard these questions (and variations on the theme) over and over. Families want to know how their student can best prepare  for the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) by ERB – and what they should do. 

For more than 30 years, my answer was always the same. “Don’t worry about it! Make sure they get a good night’s sleep, eat a solid breakfast, and come to the exam ready to do their best!” I was adamantly opposed to “test prep.” To me, it seemed unfair that most of the families asking these questions were the ones whose students didn’t need test prep in the first place. 

These students already had every advantage. They could afford expensive tutoring and prep, which would lead to increasing inequity in the process. In all likelihood, those students’ scores would be at the top of the heap anyway. Test prep might give them an unnecessary – but additional – bump. I was opposed to test prep for all students because I knew it wasn’t available for all and, therefore, only advantaged some.

However, that advice never felt quite right. At our schools, we never ask students to engage in an assessment of any kind that they have not prepared for. An academic, athletic, or artistic pursuit always requires diligent preparation, which usually yields tangible, improved results. If you prepare and study for a test, you will get a better grade. If you come to practice, train, and get in shape, your team has a better chance of winning. And, if you practice diligently, you can master that piece in time for your showing or performance. In general, preparation is key for putting your best foot forward in any endeavor.

Launching the ERB/Test Innovators Partnership

In 2019, ERB surveys of ISEE test-takers showed that more than half participated in test preparation or practice. Many families engaged tutors to help prepare students for ISEE which is an expensive endeavor. 

The quality of test-prep options was uneven at best and cost prohibitive for most. Test prep was clearly happening for students whose families could afford it and creating inequity in the admission process that needed to be addressed. 

From that determination, ERB’s partnership with Test Innovators was born in 2020.

As a member-driven organization that supports and aims to further equity in assessment, ERB had the following goals in mind when seeking a test practice partner:

  1. To support equity in the admission process and level the playing field for all students
  2. To meet students where they are
  3. For test practice to actually further the overall education of the students who engage in it

Test Innovators was chosen as our partner for two reasons – first, because of their focus on familiarity and learning. The Test Innovators platform helps students know what to expect on the ISEE. It also identifies gaps in students’ knowledge and skills and provides tools and resources for them to learn and practice those specific skills. Second, we have a shared goal for greater equity in the admission process. 

All students have access for free to basic test prep/practice via both ERB and Test Innovators. In addition to these basic options, there are also three paid upgrades with additional, advanced resources. A critical and key component of the ERB/Test Innovators partnership is providing free advanced test practice/prep for all ISEE fee-waiver recipients which gives them free access to all of the available resources.

The Efficacy of the Partnership: What the Data Say

After two years of the partnership, ERB and Test Innovators conducted an in-depth data analysis to better understand the efficacy of the ISEE Test Prep program. Of particular interest was the effect of free test practice for fee-waiver recipients.

Total Data Used for Analysis

40,073 total ISEE tests in data set
31,926 unique students
16,788 used Test Innovators
3,147 used fee waivers
21 million total data points used for analysis

Grade Level Breakdown

As you look at this data analysis, it is important to understand what ISEE scores represent ISEE Norm.

We took a look at ISEE mean percentiles for each ISEE section for fee-waiver students and non-fee-waiver students before any test practice.

ISEE Mean Percentiles

Then, we set about understanding student engagement with the Test Innovators platform. It could be broken down into three distinct categories based on how much time a student spent on the platform:

Practice Engagement Breakdown

None:
0-¾ hours

Familiarity:
¾ hour to 2 ½ hours

Learning:
2 ½ hours+

Practice Impact by Engagement Level (All Students)

So we know that test practice helps everyone, but for fee-waiver students, the impact of test practice is even more important. The image below shows the overall impact.

Practice Impact by Engagement Level (Fee-Waiver Students)
Test Practice Overall Impact: Fee-Waiver Students

Learning


2½+ hours of test practice resulted in an average increase of 14.5 percentile points for fee-waiver students

Familiarity


45 minutes to 2½ hours of test practice resulted in an average increase of 5.4 percentile points for fee-waiver students

While test preparation and practice helps all students, the impact for fee-waiver students is more dramatic. It literally levels the playing field for fee-waiver students and brings them to the middle of ISEE Norm, which is where non-fee-waiver students typically start.

Before Test Practice
Leveling the Playing Field

One of the most striking findings of this analysis is that 2.5 hours of test practice in total – not daily, weekly or monthly, but 2.5 hours total over any length of time – can have a significant impact on ISEE scores for all students. Fee-waiver students see even more benefit from this engagement with test practice.

I realize now that I was wrong about test prep. My advice for students not to engage in test practice was not good advice. Knowing what I know now, I would encourage fee-waiver students to take advantage of the free test practice they can receive via our partnership. It is a specific way to help level the playing field and bring more equity into our admission processes.


Learn more about how ERB supports equity in admission with NextGen Admission, an initiative providing measures, data insights, and resources for admission professionals and administrators. NextGen informs mission-aligned enrollment and retention decisions amid a changing admission landscape.

About the Author

Molly Moore Green is the Senior Director, Admission Programs for ERB. Previously, she worked for 32 years at Severn School in Maryland with responsibilities in all aspects of independent school management. Her roles at the school included Director of Alumni/Annual Giving, middle school English teacher, Director of Admissions/Financial Aid, Director of Summer Programs, Director of External Relations, Director of Advancement, and Director of Enrollment and Outreach, with many years of overall responsibility for the public relations, communication, admission/enrollment, and other revenue generating departments of the school. She believes in the power of data to help schools make better decisions on behalf of students.

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