Testing for Private School Admission: The SSAT


the SSATIn the DC area, the SSAT is the most widely used assessment for students in third through eleventh grade for independent school admission. For the last nine years my company has administered the SSAT to hundreds of students throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. There’s no doubt that this assessment produces a tremendous amount of anxiety. Kids place a lot of pressure on themselves. They are well aware that the most competitive schools want to see strong scores. But in some cases, the adage “a parent’s stress is a child’s stress” is true. Although this test and other assessments play a role in acceptance, it’s vital to keep testing in perspective. There are many other factors that are more important.

Taking the SSAT in the Washington DC Area

The SSAT offers a national test once a month at local independent schools and testing centers from September through June. Parents can expect to pay $80 for the lower level test and $120 for the middle and upper level test. It’s also possible to schedule a Flex test with a certified testing center for an additional fee. A Flex test is scored the same as the nationally administered SSAT, but it’s given at a private testing location at the convenience of your schedule. The problem is that due to a new policy, there are very few Flex centers available, so finding a location to administer the test can be difficult. I now encourage parents to schedule a Flex or national test date a few months out because the centers get booked quickly. Although the national test can be taken as many times as the student wishes, the Flex test can only be administered to a student once per school year.

Timing is Important

The most popular test date is in December, but students can actually take the test as late as early January and still be on time with their applications. Scores are sent directly from the SSAT and do not accompany the student’s application. Parents can designate schools for their student’s scores to be sent to during the registration process. Be sure to check the website (www.ssat.org) and sign up just as soon as registration opens. It’s important that you don’t procrastinate on this part of the admission process.

The Nuts and Bolts of the SSAT

The upper and middle-level SSAT is a long test. It’s a three-hour-and-15-minute academic assessment which begins with a 25-minute essay. Although the essay isn’t graded, it is reviewed by the admission team so that they can get a sense of the child’s writing ability. The writing sample is followed by five multiple choice sections. In order, the five sections are Quantitative, Critical Reading, Vocabulary, a second Quantitative portion, and an Experimental section (not graded). Critical Reading is 40 minutes, the Verbal section and each Quantitative section are 30 minutes, and the Experimental section is 15 minutes. There is a 5-minute break after the essay and a 10-minute break after the Critical Reading section.

There are three levels of the test: elementary for third and fourth grade, middle for fifth through seventh grade, and upper for eighth through eleventh grade. Students with special needs who normally have accommodations through their school, such as extra time on tests, can apply for accommodations on the SSAT. These requests must be made ahead of time through the SSAT website and proper documentation is required. This typically takes two to three weeks, so be sure to plan ahead.

How the SSAT Is Scored

The SSAT is a strategy-based test, which is often very different from what a student is used to in the classroom. For correct answers, students gain one point. For incorrect answers, students lose one-fourth of a point. For answers left blank, there is no positive or negative effect, simply a zero towards the raw score. The fact that students are penalized for wrong answers greatly affects test-taking strategy on the SSAT. Students are not necessarily expected to answer every question, and many sink their score by rushing to finish questions they may not answer correctly.

The educated guessing strategy is a best practice for students. Here’s how it works: if you know the answer, fill in the answer and move on. If you don’t know the answer, but can eliminate two of the answer choices, take a guess. This puts your odds of getting the question right at one-out-of-three (five possible answers with two eliminated). A one-out-of-three chance is worth risking one fourth of a point since, statistically, you will gain points in the long run. If you do not know the answer to the question and cannot eliminate any choices, leave the answer blank. The ultimate goal of the guessing strategy is to answer all of the questions that you have the best chance at getting right while avoiding the questions that are likely to drag your score down. It takes some practice, but if a student can master this scoring strategy, she will maximize her score on the SSAT.

The total amount of points gained and lost creates a raw score for the test, which is then converted to a range between 200 and 800 points (similar to how the SAT is scored). When you receive the score report, you will see an SSAT percentile that tells you how well your student fared against the other test takers in the same grade and of the same gender. Scoring in the 80th percentile means that the student was in the top 20 percent of his or her demographic.

Take SSAT Scores with a Grain of Salt

In addition to the SSAT percentile, students in fifth through ninth grade receive an estimated national percentile, which is a comparison to other students across the country, not just to those applying to an independent school. As you can imagine, the national percentile score is higher than the SSAT percentile score, since students are compared to a wider pool of students from varying backgrounds. For example, a student can have a verbal score in the 53rd percentile on the SSAT scale and in the 87th percentile on the national scale. This creates a lot of confusion. Parents panic when they see that their child, who earns mostly As and Bs as report card grades, scores at a level not consistent with their classroom performance. Take these SSAT scores with a grain of salt; your child is compared only to others taking the SSAT. By nature, these students are going to be academically advanced when compared to a national sample of students coming from different upbringings. Although schools only look at the SSAT score, as a parent, consider both scores to get a better indicator of your child’s ability.

Learn more about the SSAT, HSPT, WISC, and WPPSI in my upcoming book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition.