Getting in to competitive middle schools and high schools in NYC – top resources

Karen Berlin Ishii, Dana Haddad, Maurice Frumkin
“Getting In! Solving the NYC Middle School and High School Admissions Puzzle,” a panel presentation from The Brown Club in NY, 2015 and 2017 (2015 panel pictured)

Ah, springtime in New York City … crocuses and tulips tentatively pushing fresh green leaves out of the warming earth and everyone walking with a bounce to their step…

Springtime is also the season of private and public school admissions decisions and the start of a new test prep season for those students planning to apply to competitive middle schools and high schools in the fall – thus an ideal time for a panel presentation on the subject. Recently, I produced and participated in a terrific panel for The Brown University Club in New York, “Getting In! Solving the NYC Secondary School Admissions Puzzle,” with the goal of enabling parents and their children to make smarter choices – from test prep to applications to school choice. The all-star panel included former admissions directors of elite private schools in the city, top experts in school admissions counselling for both public and private schools, an expert from the beloved and venerable Parents League, and me, the test prep expert (for ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, COOP, TACHS, HSPT, New York State ELA and Math tests, and more).

In coming columns, I’ll share insights from the presentation and our individual experts. One perennial question from parents is how to get started in preparing their children for their exams: What are the best books, apps and links to find more information about all of the tests? I’ve created an up-to-date list with a concise summary of all the top resources that I use and recommend to students. Read it below or download the .pdf version here. And as always, feel free to get in touch with any questions about admissions testing.

Study tips and resources list for competitive middle and high school admissions

Best study materials for SHSAT
– Official DOE practice tests and information about the changes in 2017:
Note: Some of these test booklets, though labelled for different years, contain the same practice tests:
2008-2009 = 2009-2010 = 2010-2011
2011-2012 =  2012-2013
2013-2014 =  2014-2015  = 2015-2016
2016-2017 is mostly recyced material with only 2 new reading passages and 1 new math question out of 190 questions.

Argo Brothers SHSAT
– Violetta Dubinana’s “Practice Math Tests for New York City SHSAT” Vol. 1 and 2
Barron’s SHSAT
Cracking the New York City SHSAT (3rd Edition) from The Princeton Review (expected date of publication May 2018)

SHSAT strategy observations

Best study materials for ISEE
What to Expect on the ISEE – guide to the ISEE with 1 full practice test + a few pages of sample questions for each section of exam. Free to download, or purchase as a booklet $20 here

The Princeton Review Cracking the ISEE and SSAT – for math basics, excellent Verbal chapter for both ISEE and SSAT
– Ivy Global ISEE Guides: ISEE English, ISEE Math, ISEE ML Tests, ISEE UL Tests
Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – good for math chapter

Best study materials for SSAT
General information about the SSAT
Official SSAT Test Guide (with 2 practice tests + sample questions) $35
Official SSAT online practice test and drills
The Princeton Review Cracking the ISEE and SSAT – for math basics, excellent Verbal chapter for both ISEE and SSAT
– Ivy Global SSAT Guides: SSAT English, SSAT Math, SSAT Practice Tests
Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – good for math chapter

Other admissions-test-score dependent public middle and high schools in NYC
Hunter College High School  Admissions info
The Anderson School 6th Grade Admissions info
NEST+M Middle School Admissions info
LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts Auditions information

Best study materials for COOP, HSPT, TACHS (Catholic school entrance exams)
Barron’s COOP/HSPT/TACHS – has lessons and 2 practice tests/exam type
Peterson’s Master the Catholic High School Entrance Exams
RedwoodPrep’s HSPT Preparation Manual – has 3 practice exams, lots of drills, all HSPT

Best study materials for NYS Common Core ELA and Math tests
– Official NYS released questions and scored answers: start here
– Practice tests published by the same test makers, available on Amazon from 3rd party sellers or create an account and order directly from Curriculum Associates
This is the official site for published materials from previous tests. It is a little confusing to navigate, as much of the site is geared to educators. But here are some useful links within it:

Released 2016 grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test Questions
Released 2015 grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test Questions
Annotated grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test questions 2013-2014

test prep books and study materials:
Common Core Math Workbook: Grade 4: Multiple Choice, Daily Math Practice by Argo Brothers

How to build vocabulary and reading comprehension skills:

Why work on vocabulary? Vocabulary is not specifically tested on the SHSAT or NYS ELA tests as it is on ISEE and SSAT, but knowledge informs Reading Comprehension and ELA questions. Students cannot cram, so make this a long-term project:

Read challenging and diverse materials, starting with The New York Times daily (front page and a variety of articles every day, 10 minutes daily) for older students, easier newspapers for younger ones. Look up a few words that are new each time and start a folder to review and practice them.

– Put your own, simplified definitions into your cards and include a sentence that uses the word in a way that gives you an indication of the meaning. Do not bother with writing parts of speech or tertiary, archaic definitions. Use for your dictionary; many others are funky.
– Supplement with reading of other online publications (online because its most convenient and easier to look up new vocabulary): Vanity Fair, New Yorker Magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Wired, The Wall Street Journal for older students. For less advanced readers, try USA Today. For younger students, Time for Kids, Ranger Rick and popular newspapers such as Metro are good places to start.

– Download the vocabulary app Visual Vocab and master the 50 word starter set. Then buy the next set and work on those words in free time in between classes, at the bus stop, etc. Aim to master 2 words/day every day!

Links to aids for building vocabulary and critical reading skills for all these tests:

Visual Vocab app – terrific tool! Use it on the go, in-between times, really helps solidify vocabulary learning with audiovisual components, quizzes, lists. First 50 word app is free. Additional extension apps for ISEE, SSAT, SAT-Pro, SAT-Epic ($5 each – totally worth it!) – free app that every student MUST have on his or her cellphone and computer. Set up own folders and make flashcards or use sets from class or others.

Oxford Dictionaries – the best online dictionary, imo, with solid, clear and concise definitions and useful examples of the words in a phrase or sentence. No weird, sketchy definitions like on Pronunciation feature is a plus, too.

Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series – terrific classic vocabulary workbook series for all grades, incorporating fiction, history, assorted drills and extras that make vocabulary learning engaging.

Great challenging periodicals for middle school students and above:

New York Times (20 articles free/month with registration, otherwise $15/month to subscribe)
The New York Times for students (The Learning Network)
Smithsonian Magazine (free)
National Geographic Magazine (one free article /month or $12/year to subscribe)
Time Magazine
Popular Mechanics

The Real ACT Test Prep Guide 2016-2017: Deeply flawed but indispensable

As a long-time ACT and SAT tutor, I was excited to hear that the ACT people were finally updating their “Real ACT Test Prep Guide.” For too long, they offered a single book with a measly 3 practice tests, eventually upped to 5, while the College Board had many more resources. In Fall of 2015, the ACT essay was suddenly changed and a new “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” appeared, but it actually was just a new publisher and cover with no new content! Seemed underhanded of them but it was almost surely just clumsy timing. The ACT has, until recently, not been subject to the heat that the College Board has historically felt to be responsive to the public. The ACT website was corny and lame (just a few years ago, they promoted an annual student video contest and the winners’ video showed students asking each other what to bring to the exam. Super creative!) and their services were generally a step or two behind the College Board’s for the SAT. That is starting to change now as the ACT has become a major player and is competing head to head for the same students as the College Board.

But when the first true new edition of the “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” came out in 2016, it was a disappointment. This book has been widely panned by tutors and test prep teachers: Once again, the ACT is down to only 3 full practice tests and much of the material is recycled from previous exams (that are readily available from multiple sources online)! As for the new essay format, although the essay questions given are new, there are zero scored essays for guidance and, in fact, the scoring system has changed again since the book was published.

The book is a deeply flawed, overpriced, recycled resource. However, it is the only real ACT resource with answer explanations from the company that makes the test. Also, math is the one section that is not completely recycled, and it does show evidence of harder questions and math topics that have not appeared previously, confirming the rumors that the math section is getting harder.

Btw, now that the book is published by Wiley – publisher of the “Dummies” series – purchasers can access some freebie resources from the Wiley website, using a code given under a scratch sticker in the inside back cover of the book. The extras are not terribly useful, however, and I would recommend that students seeking extra study resources check out the Applerouth textbook for the ACT (only available from their website here). For advanced Math students, Barron’s Math and Science text is useful (the math section more so than the science).