Understanding ISEE Stanines

Updated: May 11, 2018

What are these cryptic stanines (1-9) and what do they mean?

To be fair, ERB (Educational Records Bureau) does provide this detail about stanines in their official guide, What to Expect on the ISEE: “In general, a stanine score of 1-3 is below average, 4-6 is average, and 7-9 is above average.”

So why won’t the independent schools just tell us what ISEE numbers they want so those golden admissions gates will swing open for our deserving sons and daughters?

Figure A

If only there were a simple formula to crack the admissions code. ERB (Educational Records Bureau) publishes a primer called Understanding the ISEE Report, so start there for some valuable context about how the scoring works (See Figure A).

We’re going to focus on the one column in the Test Profile section with the data that matters most to admissions officers: “Stanine.” And while it’s true that stanines are derived from other data points, I’m not convinced those stats matter much in the eyes of admissions officers. Data hounds will still be interested in the math behind the math, but most folks just want to know the down and dirty stanines.

If you Google hard enough, you can find another document from ERB with critical intel that you won’t otherwise read until your child receives official test scores, Understanding the Individual Student Report (see Figure B).

It’s better for you to learn about this right now, before those official scores become available and you forget. Here’s an excerpt from what ERB says about their stanine analysis:

Figure B

“… Each score should be interpreted with a little give and take. Overall, ISEE Stanine scores are interpreted as the observed score plus or minus one stanine. Thus, where a student has received a Stanine of 5 for Verbal Reasoning, the Stanine Analysis graph will show a band stretching from 4 to 6… This fact is important when admissions officers are comparing scores of two students who may be one stanine apart in terms of their observed score. In reality, there may be no effective difference between the true performance levels of those two students.”

So why do I get the feeling most admissions officers understandably never see or read this last bit of context? And even if they do, how can they possibly be expected to account for such a mathematically mystical discrepancy?

Elizabeth Mangas, current Executive Director, ISEE, also reminds us in her letter to Parents and Guardians that this test is no joke. And that the timed essay is unscored. She also asks us to take comfort in this fact: “The scores have little meaning out of context.”

Don’t you feel better now?

But if you’re a parent or an educator, you still want the inside track on what stanines all these schools want.

My only true answer: It all depends.

Some schools care all too much about ISEE data; others are refreshingly dismissive of ERB and all those three letters represent. No school wants to be known as the place with a secret, pre-set formula for ISEE stanines. And even if a school’s admissions team had a secret cellar and ceiling for such figures, they’d never tell us.

Let’s practice thinking differently about this, using our brains in a way standardized testing never rewards. Kids come from schools with wildly different curriculums, only to slog through a one-size-fits-all, mind numbing assessment on one particularly stressful day. It follows that test results likely reveal far more about a school’s curricular choices and focus (or lack thereof) on test taking than they indicate about an individual’s academic achievement and potential.

And since experienced admissions officers know your child’s school curriculum as well or better than do you, I insist on believing this unconventional lens on admissions counts for something.

Here’s my final piece of advice: whenever parentally possible, shift the conversation with your children far, far away from any talk of stanines. Instead we can dialogue about the essential skills they’re learning, the ones they take with them long after the ISEE has faded from your family’s rearview mirror: vocabulary development, active reading strategies, timed writing and plenty of math.

Kids can’t control stanines, but they can control their effort. Let’s spend more time praising them for working hard and doing their best. Only then can we love them just as fiercely and unconditionally as they deserve.

No matter what those stanines look like.

~Matthew Hayutin, M. Ed

Founder & Partner, Hayutin & Associates

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