Applying to Private School This Year? Get Ready for At-Home Testing

Diana Cohen
July 23, 2020
min read
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If you have a student applying to private school this year, you’ve probably started to anticipate the many ways in which social distancing will change the experience. The admissions tests are no exception. The two most common admissions tests required by private schools - the SSAT and ISEE - have both announced new at-home testing options to help accommodate test takers while traditional test settings may be unavailable. Let’s take a look at these new options so you can know what to expect when it comes to private school admissions testing this year.

Why At-Home Testing?

EMA, the company that makes the SSAT, first launched limited at-home testing this spring after standard test dates in April, May, and June had to be cancelled. At first, at-home testing was offered as a priority option for students who were registered for one of the cancelled tests. As EMA explained when they first announced at-home testing:

We believe this new mode of testing will alleviate the pressures on families still looking to fulfill application requirements and yet concerned about group testing at one of EMA’s member schools given continued worries about proximity of people before a COVID vaccine is available.

Since the initial announcement, EMA has continued to refine their plans for the SSAT. Knowing that COVID may continue to affect test site availability throughout the coming school year, EMA plans to make the at-home SSAT the “main testing solution” for applicants in 2020-2021. Beginning in August, all SSAT test takers will have access to the at-home option.

Like the SSAT, the ISEE at-home option was also launched this spring in response to COVID-19. The ERB, makers of the ISEE, explain the need for a reliable testing option:

In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, ERB is offering families a secure, online, remotely-proctored option that enables students to take the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) in their homes at a time that is convenient for their schedules.

In short, both testing companies want to ensure that students will have reliable opportunities to take the tests even while social distancing remains in place. While admissions timelines vary, most private school applicants during the 2020-21 cycle will need to complete testing by February 2021 in order to meet admissions deadlines. Widespread at-home testing helps ensure that students, and the partner schools who rely upon these two testing agencies, can receive scores within this standard time frame, regardless of what happens with the virus and the much-anticipated vaccine.

SSAT Options for 2020-21

EMA hosted a webinar at the end of June in which they unveiled their complete testing plan for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. While at-home testing is indeed the centerpiece of their plans, it’s not the only option for students taking the SSAT.

Students in the US and Canada taking the Middle and Upper Level SSAT will have three testing options this year:

  1. At-home testing
  2. Computer-based testing at a Prometric test center
  3. Paper-based Flex testing

Registration for at-home testing opens for all test takers in August. EMA stresses that they’ve designed at-home testing to be a “convenient” and “continuous solution” for families. When you register, you’ll be able to schedule a test date as soon as the next day (provided it’s a testing date) and up to 90 days in advance. Test dates will be available every Saturday, plus one Sunday administration every month, and two test times will be offered on each test day. On test day, your student will take the test on a home computer or laptop, using a secure online platform with a remote proctor. Once the test is complete, the schools you designate will receive scores within three days, and you’ll receive the scores within four days. EMA offers an SSAT at Home FAQ page for parents who wish to learn more about this option.

If at-home testing is not for you, you can look into signing up for a computer-based test at a Prometric test center or a paper-based test with one of EMA’s Flex testing partners. Both of these options will be subject to CDC, state, and local guidelines about safe reopening and will therefore have more limited availability. Students can take the test at a Prometric center at their convenience (assuming local availability) up to two times per testing year, and can also schedule up to one Flex test per year.

Regardless of which option you choose, the test format, content, and length (roughly three hours including breaks) will be exactly the same. Scoring will also be identical across test options. It’s the same SSAT, just administered through different platforms and in different locations.

Elementary Level test takers (students in grades 3 and 4) will still only have access to the paper-based test (although EMA is eagerly pursuing digital options for younger test takers in the future.) International students will have the paper-based option and the computer-based option, if a Prometric test center is available in their home country, but they will not be able to test at home like students in the US and Canada. Elementary Level and international test takers will have five paper-based test date options running from September through December 2020.

ISEE Options for 2020-21

The ERB, makers of the ISEE, highlight several options for students in the year ahead: at-home testing (for students in the US and Canada entering grades 5 through 12), and computer-based testing at Prometric test centers. At-home tests can be scheduled for virtually any day or time, including nights and weekends, as long as a slot with a proctor is available. Group testing at ERB member schools and offices is still listed as an option on their website, but we anticipate that actual availability for this option will depend on local circumstances surrounding COVID. International students will have to stick with computer-based testing at a Prometric center, subject to local availability and reopening guidelines. A full list of Prometric site openings is available here. With both at-home and Prometric center testing, it appears that scheduling will be available on demand, but students will be limited to one test date per season, during each of the three ISEE seasons per year: fall (August - November), winter (December - March), and spring/summer (April-July). The test format and scoring will be identical across all testing options.

What About Security and Accessibility?

With the rapid shift to at-home testing this year, two big questions immediately come to mind. How will the testing companies keep the test secure and prevent cheating? In addition, how will the testing companies make the test accessible for students who require accommodations and for students who don’t have access to the internet and a compatible device at home?

On the security issue, both companies are going to considerable effort in their communications to ensure families and schools alike that they have sufficient technology to monitor test takers remotely. EMA has partnered with PSI, a remote proctoring agency, to conduct live remote SSAT proctoring and they'll be using artificial intelligence monitoring and data forensics to detect potential testing irregularities. ERBwill be using ProProctor, a Promtric product that uses “advanced technologies and experienced proctoring staff.” ProProctor will lock down the student’s testing device during the ISEE exam to prevent access to outside content. ISEE students will also undergo a live security inspection with a Prometric Readiness Agent via webcam prior to their exam.

When it comes to accessibility, EMA has a number of provisions in place for SSAT test takers, including fee waivers and access to laptops and internet kits for students, all based on need. Accommodations will remain available on the SSAT, regardless of format, and students are encouraged to apply for accommodations as early as possible. With computer-based and at-home testing, some accommodations, such as large print, are built into the platform and will be easier to provide than ever. While ERB does not discuss accommodations directly on it’s at-home testing site, the company does have an accommodations request process and we assume this process will apply equally to both testing options this year.

What to Make of the New Options: Home Sweet Home?

All this new information can feel overwhelming, but it all boils down to one simple takeaway: if your student is applying to private school for next year, they can now plan to test from home, at their convenience.

All things considered, this is a positive development, especially after a spring semester filled with cancellations and uncertainty. The tests aren’t changing substantively, so the main concern for parents will be making sure that they have the necessary internet and computer access, and the SSAT is doing it’s part to make sure that this is possible for all families, regardless of means. While at-home testing has raised security questions, the test companies appear to be taking serious measures to address any potential issues - a trend we’ll continue to monitor. In the meantime, students will have a reliable testing option in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

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