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What is the SSAT?

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Whether you’re starting to think about the next step for your child, or in the midst of SSAT preparation, we’ve got the essentials, covered in this blog post.

The Secondary Schools Admission Test, or SSAT (es-sat), is a standardized test open to children in grades 3 through 11, across three levels of testing. The SSAT’s primary use is to help independent elementary, middle, and high schools with their admissions processes - so understanding the SSAT is crucial for helping your child flourish in the best school for them.

Note: The SSAT is a separate test from the ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam). But don’t worry - we’ll cover the differences (and what is harder) later on.


So, what is the SSAT? It’s a standardized test, that is to say, a carefully designed series of questions that are scored by comparing results to established norms and averages.

The SSAT, and other standardized tests, are great for school admissions; they allow schools to test candidates across a number of areas, and get a good understanding of how each child fits in within their age group.

In practice, the SSAT is broken up into many different sections, which test candidates across learning areas. The elementary level SSAT (grades 3-4) has 5 sections, comprising a total of 104-106 questions, with a total duration of 2 hours and 5 minutes. The middle/upper SSAT (grades 5-7, 8-11) is a longer test, with 6 sections and 167 questions spread over 3 hours and 10 minutes.

SSAT sections

The “Quantitative” section of the SSAT will test your child’s math and quantitative reasoning skills. Questions will span a broad range of topics, so children will need to feel confident tackling anything from pictographs to fractions.

The “Verbal” section of the SSAT focuses on children’s ability to make sense of problems and concepts when they are framed as words. In practice, this might mean completing analogies (i.e. “listen is to music” as “read is to book”), or identifying synonyms of different words.

In the “Reading” section of the SSAT, children are presented with written passages which will test their ability to analyse text and recognise fundamental literary elements. Questions range from investigating the author’s purpose, to identifying supporting ideas in a passage, and passages can be chosen from one of five genres: Prose, Poetry, Humanities, Social Studies and Science.

The “Experimental” section of the SSAT is something else entirely; it’s not marked, and its purpose is to allow question makers space to trial new questions and evaluate the results. So, whilst it does encompass a variety of Verbal, Quantitative and Reading questions, it has no bearing on your child’s SSAT result.

What's the difference between the ISEE and SSAT?

You might have heard of the ISEE, and think that the SSAT looks pretty similar. In short, it is - so what’s the difference (and the all-important “what is harder” question)? Both the SSAT and ISEE are standardized tests that cover verbal reasoning, math, and reading comprehension. However, their approach to each part of the test is slightly different.

In terms of structure, the ISEE has four sections, in comparison to the SSAT’s three; the quantitative section of the SSAT covers content which is split between quantitative reasoning and “mathematics achievement” in the ISEE. The sections are also scored in a different way. Where both standardize the results of the test, the SSAT converts results into a percentile score, whereas the ISEE presents results as stanine scores (on a nine-point standard scale).

The content covered in each section also varies between the tests. The SSAT includes analogies as part of verbal reasoning, whilst the ISEE tests students’ ability on sentence completion. In the reading section, it’s more of a stylistic choice. The SSAT focuses on older literature texts and poetry and by contrast, the ISEE chooses more contemporary passages to base questions around. And, as previously mentioned - the ISEE separates out problem-solving and critical thinking from knowledge-based questions; the SSAT combines to present a mix of questions in its quantitative section.

What is harder?

So, what is harder? There isn’t a definite answer to give per se, namely because it comes down to the child! The ISEE and SSAT are structured differently - and this may impact how tricky the tests can be for candidates.

The SSAT has a stronger focus on the verbal sections, so children more able in this area might want to opt for the SSAT! Those with an ability for quantitative reasoning will see themselves pushed to a higher level on the ISEE, with two, more challenging, math sections.

SSAT Scoring

Let’s take a look at scoring on the SSAT. We mentioned that the SSAT uses percentile scores to compare candidates - but what does this mean? A percentile score ranks candidates against the scores of others taking the same test. In practice, that means that if your child scores in the 70th percentile, they have scored better than 70% of other candidates taking the test.

The SSAT percentile score is calculated by comparing a candidate’s raw score with scores achieved by children in the same grade over the past three years. The raw score is simply a calculation of correct answers (1 point for each), and incorrect answers (-¼ ); no marks are awarded or deducted for leaving answers blank on the SSAT.

These scores are then scaled to give the percentile score. It’s worth noting here that SSAT candidates are generally very high achievers - a low percentile ranking on the test should not be too discouraging!

We can help

Atom Learning provides everything your child needs to excel on the SSAT with test prep that adapts for top scores. Start your 5-day free trial today.

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