Everything you need to know on ISEB Common Pre-Tests


With ISEB Common Pre-Tests just around the corner, we speak to Therese Luke, Head of Year 6 and Head of Pre-Test Preparation and Shelley Smith, Head of Future Schools at Dragon School Oxford and get the lowdown of what they are and what’s involved.


What is the ISEB?

The ISEB is the Independent Schools Examination Board.  This is the examining body that sets the Common Entrance exams in Year 8 (or Year 6 for 11+) and the Common Pre-Test used by the independent school sector.

What is the ISEB Common Pre-Test?

The Common Pre-Test, is an online pre-test, designed by GL Assessments, which senior schools can opt to use instead of running their own entrance pre-tests. As more schools take it up, it has alleviated the number of tests that pupils need to take. However, the ease of use means that the process for admissions has shifted significantly for many schools to as early as November in Year 6.

The Pre-Test consists of four adaptive, multiple choice, online tests in Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning, English and Maths. Adaptive means that when a pupil is correct the level of difficulty increases and, if they are finding a level too hard it will become simpler, thus each child will be challenged to achieve at the highest level they are able.

How long does it take to complete?

The tests take around 2 ½ hours if taken consecutively and are completed at the pupil’s current school or at a Testing Centre. Pupils with SEND are entitled to extra time. This will require parents to talk to the senior school about their child’s needs and provide a copy of the Educational Psychologist’s report. The senior school will liaise with the ISEB and the child’s current school to ensure they are suitably supported.

When do children sit the Pre-Test?

The Common Pre-Test is taken by children in either Year 6 or Year 7, depending on the entry process and requirements of the senior school at which they have registered.

What does the Pre-Test involve?

To provide a little more detail, the Common Pre-Test has four parts, English, Maths, Verbal Reasoning & Non-Verbal Reasoning.

The English Test is an online comprehension followed by some punctuation, spelling and grammar questions and takes a total of 25 minutes.

The Verbal Reasoning element takes 36 minutes and contains 6 different types of Verbal Reasoning question. The Non-Verbal Reasoning element takes 32 minutes and contains 3 different types of non-verbal reasoning questions. For both these tests, there are practice questions at the start of each section.

The Maths Test takes 50 minutes and has 36 questions to answer. The questions are worded using simple English and mathematical vocabulary and range from simpler ordering questions to more applied, multi-step word problems. There are practice questions at the start of this test too.

Should parents offer extra support at home or leave well alone?

The Common Pre-Test is designed not to require any preparation, although some familiarisation is advised. The ISEB do not offer any practice papers or tests, however there are online programmes which can assist. Here is the link to the ISEB demo so that candidates can gain some insight into the style of each test: https://secure.testingforschools.com/player-demo-iseb/#/

At Dragon School we build preparation into the curriculum from Year 4, and run pre-test preparation sessions tailored to the requirements of the tests in Year 6 and 7. One could argue that preparation starts at a younger age with reading, number skills and cognitive development all playing an important part in how well a pupil will perform. Therefore, it is important that parents think about their child before launching into trying to obtain places at schools that may be too selective for them. Taking the advice of teachers in a child’s current school will help parents aim for the right school for their child.

As the pupil moves nearer to the test, parents can help by encouraging their child to do some online practice if their school does not offer this in-house. However, they should avoid causing stress and anxiety as children perform better in tests when they are not feeling too pressurised.

Is there a pass mark that pupils need to achieve?

There is no pass mark as every school has different requirements and uses the test scores in different ways.

The Common Pre-Test provides the senior school with a standardised score, based on the age of the child, the level of difficulty they achieved and their accuracy. The score is based around a normal distribution where 100 is the average. This is similar to the way in which Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) are scored.

Selective schools will use the Common Pre-Test score, along with the reference from their current school, as an initial cut off point. They will then invite successful pupils back for a further test and/or group activities and an interview. After this, they will offer a place, wait list place or no place. For these schools, the Common Pre-Test accounts for about 25-30% by the end of the process but is key in the initial decision the school makes.

Other schools will use the Common Pre-Test score in conjunction with the reference from their current school, an interview and/or a taster day involving group activities. They will look at all the information they have at their disposal before making their choices. For some of these schools, the Common Pre-Test accounts for just 10% of the process with the main drivers being the interview and reference from their current school.

Therefore, it is fair to say that, whilst the test is an important element of the process, it is not everything.

What do you do if your child has a bad day or freezes up during the test?  Will they get a second chance?

Unfortunately, the tests can only be sat once per academic year and cannot be re-taken. However, the senior school will have sight of the reference, which may contain CATs, from the current school, and if they notice a big discrepancy in the pupil’s performance, they are likely to contact the school to see if there were any circumstances affecting them on the day. Equally, the Prep school will contact the senior school if the child had a wobble or was under the weather whilst taking the test.

If a child has not performed well, some schools will place a child on a waiting list and ask them to re-sit the test the following year but some may reject a child at this point. However, this will be based on more than just the test score – as mentioned they look at other information as well.

Is it viable for a child in year 6 to be tested for their senior school, three years before they are ready to leave?

Children mature at different ages and the ISEB have designed the Common Pre-Test to be standardised, which means it accounts for the child’s age, and is intended to assess a child’s potential as well as current ability. This means that if a child is young for their academic year, the results will be adjusted to give an age-adapted score and the child will not be disadvantaged when compared with an older child.

Has ISEB taken the pressure off Common Entrance?

The ISEB is aware of some senior schools changing their thoughts on Common Entrance exams and are in the process of adapting the curriculum to suit the changing needs. The Common Pre-Test has alleviated the pressure of Common Entrance to some extent as many schools now offer confirmed places and Common Entrance is used for setting purposes only.  This does also mean that there is more pressure during Year 6 and 7 to gain a place offer, even if it is subject to Common Entrance results.


The Dragon is a co-educational day and boarding Prep School.  Its dedicated Future Schools department works closely with senior staff to advise families from Year 4 onwards. Leavers progress to a wide variety of leading senior schools with many achieving academic and specialist awards. 



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