Exam fever – ISEB pre-tests and past papers

For over 70 years, the 11+ exam has been a key staging post in many children’s lives. We all understand the pressure that children are under these days after months of remote schooling and the government’s reliance on regular testing in schools. If you are applying for a selective school then there will be a multitude of exams to be sat before you even get to the interview stage.  

Exam chat comes up every year and in a previous blog we discussed if they were damaging and outdated.  Recently an article in The Times quoted education leaders in Scotland calling exams a ‘Victorian British relic’ and I think that there cannot be a more damning statement than that, even if it does not have referendum undertones. However, are they really outdated? Should we be looking at less closed-book assessments and developing opportunities for young people to show their talents and abilities in creative ways? That might work for GCSEs and entrance to university and I shall still campaign that we need to see greater change for 16 year olds. 

Anyway back to the 11 plus. Seventy years later, there are a few changes and the online computerised test has grown in popularity, particularly with the challenges of Covid. So, if you cannot get around it, then what does it mean to get through it? 

How is the ISEB-pre test different from the CAT4 tests?

I often have parents asking about CAT4 tests. Cognitive Ability Tests are one of two assessments used by schools to assess the raw ability of their pupils. Their purpose is to help teachers identify pupils who are underperforming and give guidance when setting target grades. A few schools ask for this data as it gives them a snapshot of your child’s ability. 

Both the ISEB Pre-Test and CAT4 have been devised and written by GL Assessment and therefore there are many similarities between the two. The ISEB Pre-test includes four papers in Maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. In contrast, CAT4 covers Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Spatial Reasoning. 

In fact, many prep schools use CAT4 assessments not just for the data and insights it gives, but also to familiarise their pupils with online testing. If your child is at a state primary, it is rare for them to sit a CAT4 assessment. This usually only happens when they transition to Year 7. 

What are the ISEB pre-tests?

The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) Common Pre-Tests are a set of adaptive, computerised exams. The exam window is a little more flexible as it opens in October and closes in early December allowing schools and parents to pick a date to sit it. They are designed to provide a universal and standardised measure of assessment for Year 6 and Year 7 candidates in the independent sector in advance of their Common Entrance examinations. 

How does it work?

Adaptive testing means the difficulty of questions changes depending on how an individual child is performing. If the child is performing well, the questions will get harder. The test takes around two hours and thirty minutes. Pupils input all answers into a computer. Be aware that there is no facility to return to earlier answers once inputted, and so we need to teach pupils to check their answers as they go along. A tricky skill! 

Is it better than the long form test?

Each child should take the test only once in an academic year. Their results will be shared with all the schools for which they have registered. This has many benefits as it stops children from going to six or seven assessment days and sitting a barrage of exams. The flip side is that if your child has a bad session in front of the computer it can mean that their results for that year do not reflect their cognitive ability and they might not be invited for an interview and have a chance to show their true self. On the other hand, in the hand-written tests, children can go back to a question if they get stuck and gain marks for showing their working. The technique is very different.

What happened to the 13+ Common Entrance?

The 13+ Common Entrance exam, historically used by independent schools for Y9 entry, is sat in June by pupils in Year 8. Sadly, in its current format it is nearly defunct as a selection tool, with one or two exceptions. Most schools are disregarding it completely and will not mark the papers. Those that do mark 13+ use it for setting purposes only. Much of the emphasis is now placed upon the Year 6 or Year 7 pre-test assessments.

What can I do to help my child?

The key is not to overdo it… as you know, children don’t perform well with too much pressure, especially if they start to hold a ‘grudge’ against the idea of revising and the 11+ exams. There is clearly value in familiarising yourself with the style and type of paper you will be sitting. So yes – some mock exam papers are a good idea. However these tests are designed to assess raw intelligence and want to see which children can genuinely understand the concepts. 

Whether you are seeking to offer your child some final preparation or wanting to gauge where they are ‘at’ ahead of the ISEB pre-tests then our ‘Mock Exam Week during half term is the perfect preparation as we follow each exam with a targeted feedback session to review errors and mistakes, allowing children to understand what they should do differently next time. Created and delivered by experienced 11+ teachers, feedback is an effective way to help hone and perfect skills in readiness for the real event.