Demystifying Private School Admissions Testing

Posted by Sarah Spencer on 12/4/16 11:40 AM

testing_blocks.jpgAs we enter the height of the private school admissions season, many parents, understandably, have questions about admissions testing:

  • What does the test measure?
  • What should I tell my young child about the test?
  • How do I prepare my child?
  • What is the experience like for my child?
  • What do the scores mean and how do schools use them?

Below are some answers to these commonly asked questions, as well as some information about how to get started with the testing process.

What does the test measure?

The specific test administered for admissions varies based on the child’s age. However, regardless of the test, they all seek to provide information on individual areas of cognitive development. All of the tests administered (e.g., WPPSI-IV, WISC-V, and SSAT) are standardized, which means that they are developed, administered, and scored in a standard manner. In addition, the standard scores are based on national normative samples (e.g., large groups of children that are nationally representative of the population) and are specifically determined by the child’s age at the time of testing.

The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV) is an individually administered intelligence test designed for children aged 2 years and 6 months to 7 years and 7 months. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Fifth Edition (WISC-IV) is a similar test designed for children aged 6 years to 16 years and 11 months. For children who have turned 6 years old, they will likely be given the WISC-V.

Both the WPPSI-IV and the WISC-V are composed of a variety of subtests, each of which measure a specific area of cognitive ability. These areas include visual-spatial analysis and integration (e.g., figuring out how pieces go together to make a design), verbal reasoning and word knowledge, geometric reasoning and pattern detection, working memory (e.g., the ability to hold information in the mind), and visual-motor processing speed (e.g., how quickly children can scan or discriminate visual information). The WPPSI-IV and the WISC-V are administered by trained and licensed psychologists, typically at a private practice. The test typically takes 45–60 minutes. Importantly, most children find the testing fun and enjoyable.

If a child is applying for middle or high school (e.g., 5th grade and up), they will instead take the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT). The SSAT is a multiple-choice test that consists of verbal, quantitative (math), and reading comprehension sections. There is also a writing section. The SSAT is administered at local schools or educational consulting groups.

What should I tell my young child about the test?

This is a commonly asked question, particularly for younger children (e.g., rising kindergarteners). If children know that they will be going to a new school, it can be helpful to tell them that they will be doing a few activities for their new school as a way to learn about what they know and how they solve problems. It is best to avoid using the word “test” or “games” and instead emphasize that they will solve puzzles, work with blocks, and answer questions.

The great thing is that the only preparation needed is a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.


Here is some specific language you can use with your young child:

  • “Today you are going to be solving some puzzles and working with blocks. These activities help us understand how you learn best.”
  • “Today you are going to do some activities that help us understand how you think and problem-solve.”
  • “Today you will be doing some activities for your new school. These include solving puzzles, working with blocks, and answering questions.”

What is the experience like for my child?

This is a particular concern for parents of younger children. Here is how the WPPSI-IV and WISC-V are administered:

First, the child is brought to the testing room. If a child has difficulty separating from the parent, many psychologists will invite the parent to accompany the child to the testing room. Rapport is established through conversation and perhaps even a brief game. Once the child is comfortable, the parent will exit the room and wait nearby. Often, the child is asked a few questions about family, school, friends, favorite games, etc.


Next, testing begins. For the WPPSI-IV, eight subtests are typically administered. For the WISC-V, 10 subtests are typically administered. Each subtest takes on average 5–15 minutes, with a total testing time of 45–60 minutes for the WPSSI-IV and 60–90 minutes for the WISC-V. Of course, these times vary depending on several factors, so a two-hour appointment is typically scheduled. Again, these subtests use pictures, puzzles, words, and blocks to examine different areas of cognitive development. (See “Private School Testing: What’s the WPPSI-IV? How do schools use it?” for a more detailed explanation of subtests and composite scores.)

During the appointment, children are allowed to take breaks or get a snack if needed. Often, children want to continue even when the testing has been completed!

What do the scores mean and how do schools use them?

It is important to remember that testing scores are only a snapshot into the child’s skills and cognitive abilities at the time of the assessment. Although there is no one way to use the scores, they do provide insight into a child’s cognitive development. It can be helpful for schools to know if children are extremely strong verbally but struggle with geometric reasoning. These types of discrepancies can help to predict the types of subjects that may be challenging for students, as well as the strategies that can be beneficial in the process of learning.

Because the tests are normed, the scores are presented as percentiles. So, if a child earns a score at the 84th percentile, this indicates that he/she performed better than 84% of same-aged peers. These percentiles provide schools with an additional piece of information to better understand a child’s strengths.

How do I get my child signed up for admissions testing?

There are many local testing centers that administer the tests. To help you find a convenient testing site, consider this list of testing centers that Lowell parents have used.

Admissions testing usually costs around $300. Some testing centers offer vouchers to help defray costs. You can ask the testing center you have chosen about this benefit or, if you need help identifying a testing center that offers vouchers, make inquiries with the admissions directors at the schools to which you are applying.

Note: The WPPSI-IV and WISC-V can only be administered once every 12 months.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Private School Admissions

Sarah Spencer

Written by Sarah Spencer

Sarah Spencer earned her PhD in clinical psychology from SUNY, University at Buffalo. She has worked as a child psychologist at the Wake Kendall Group, PLLC and as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at American University. She has also worked in a number of private schools in the DC metro area.