The skills pertinent to reading comprehension are without question an important aspect of the intellectual abilities of applicants to competitive private high schools. The Upper Level ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section acknowledges this fact by providing a set of diagnostics that help to evaluate and quantify the linguistic-interpretive skills that young students have acquired throughout their years of study. As on all of the levels of the ISEE exams, the Reading Comprehension section focuses on the general reading skills of the test-taker. It is not an examination concerning literary knowledge, but instead attempts to examine the overall interpretive capacities of the young student, and his or her ability to abstract information from any particular genre of prose. Thus, the Reading Comprehension section contains passages that are drawn from the humanities, the sciences, and even essays pertaining to topics of contemporary interest. This variety is provided in order to prevent the student from being able to answer merely from familiarity with the topic being discussed. The point at hand is reading comprehension—a general analytic skill—not any particular knowledge.
As expected, with each successively advanced ISEE examination, the passage selections also increase in their difficulty. Therefore, it is particularly key on test day that the student pay close attention to the major thematic elements of each passage, carefully noting all of the dialectical and logical “moves” made by the author of the passage. Within a given passage, it will be necessary to note astutely the particular expositional manner of the author, paying heed to each explicit idea he or she uses to support his or her thesis. The student will have to mentally note points of communication that are much more subtle than those tested in lower levels of the exam. Such skills can only be learned through a great deal of reading before taking the exam, and a rigorous program of preparation can help to make this process natural when the student is in the midst of the pressures of studying for the exam.
On the whole, the best preparation for this section of the examination is two-fold. On the one hand, it is most desirable that the test-taker has read many passages concerning different fields of knowledge. Such regular reading provides the general framework within which he or she can feel at ease when faced with some of the idiosyncrasies of each of the genres that he or she will face on test day. It is much easier to scan a passage and see its overall structure if you have read other texts of the same genre on similar topics, or at least in genres that have considered similar kinds of information. Given that the Upper Level ISEE presupposes a much more advanced set of comprehension abilities than those presupposed by lower levels of the test, such general textual exposure is an important aspect for “preparing the ground” for success—that is, for providing the general conditions for the test-taker to do well.
In addition to this, standard test preparation is also important and more easily addressed in a short period of time than are the skills developed over long periods of time by reading challenging texts. Such practice can help the student gain skills of critical reading and help him or her learn to outline and assess passages. When undertaking such a program of preparatory study, it is also helpful for the student to learn how to guide him- or herself through the facts and texts presented in a way that is wholly cognizant of potential pitfalls in the text. If you can see a trap long before it is sprung, this helps to prevent you from falling into its snare. This ability can be easily taught before test day and is an important skill for enabling students to answer ably the questions asked of them.