What's the Deal with International Schools' Entrance Testing?
Entrance Tests in International Schools: A source of stress for many prospective parents!
What do the entrance tests involve?
How long will they take?
When should we start preparing for them?
How can my child get ready for these tests?
I have visited 33 international schools in Kuala Lumpur so far, and in each and every school I have asked about their admissions processes - and that includes their entrance testing procedures. Of course, the procedures & policies vary a bit from school to school - hut here are some useful bits of general information that I hope you might find helpful.
INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS IN KL AREN’T ACADEMICALLY SELECTIVE.
Well, none that I’ve visited, anyway!
By ‘academically selective’, I mean none of the international schools have a policy about only accepting children with the highest grades or marks. They might have, in days gone by, but in today’s schooling market (where there are more school places than students) they just can’t afford to be so picky anymore. Your child doesn't have to be the top of the class, a straight A*student or a prefect to be accepted - they just have to be able to access the school's curriculum and be able to learn in that environment. More on that in a minute.
That policy changes a bit when students are applying into Year 12/Grade 11 - whether they’re starting their A Levels, IB Diploma, American/Canadian High School Diploma or Australian HSC, schools want to be sure that they are able to cope with the challenging academic demands of the course. It’s pretty standard to have minimum entry requirements - such as 5 C grades, or even 5 B grades, at IGCSE.
But in the younger years, I haven’t encountered a single school that would turn away a child for having As rather than A*s, or 80%s rather than 90%s. It just doesn’t happen.
SO WHY THE TESTS?
The point of the tests is to determine whether a child is able to access the curriculum without additional support. That verb ‘access’ is what I call ‘teacher speak’ for understanding & engaging with the curriculum at an age-appropriate level.
Basically, the school is checking whether your child will be able to understand their lessons, enjoy their learning and receive the care and support they need to thrive, personally and academically.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE MYSTERIOUS TESTS?
There are 4 types of tests: Literacy, Numeracy, ‘School Readiness’ & Academic Potential.
Here's a breakdown of what the testing commonly involves for Kindgergarten, Primary and Secondary-age children.
Literacy. Numeracy. ‘School readiness
An in-class observation. A teacher will watch your child playing with other children of the same age, checking for age-appropriate behaviours and social skills. They’re seeing whether your child is ‘ready to learn’ and is able to get along comfortably with others in the class. Sometimes this observation might be just an hour or two, at other schools it might be a whole day! They're not expecting your child to be absolutely perfect, so please don't stress!
Checking of skill-level/knowledge: Usually a teacher will chat to your child & ask them simple questions to check their level of understanding and their knowledge of things like colours, shapes, numbers and letters. They’ll just be checking where your child is ‘at’ - they certainly won’t be expected to know all of those things off-by-heart at this age.
Note: British international schools start teaching phonics in Reception (age 4 onwards) or even earlier if children show readiness. Therefore, if your child is applying for Reception into a British international school, they will likely check your child's levels of phonoloogical awareness and current reading ability (if any!). Don't panic if you're coming from a system where your child hasn't started this year - in most international preschools, children will work on their phonics & reading in differentiated groups. They just need to see what your child knows already/doesn't know yet.
Literacy, Numeracy, ‘School readiness’/Social Skills
A check of current English ability. For younger children, this will involve an assessment of their reading ability and some simple writing. For older children, this might involve a piece of writing, like a letter, that your child does in timed conditions. It's also quite common to give a test to determine their reading ability: this could be a computerised test to determine their current 'reading age’ or a comprehension test, like a SAT Paper.
A check of current mathematical ability. Usually a range of age-appropriate questions, that children of the same age that are currently in the school would be expected to be able to attempt. The questions will likely range in difficulty, so the school can determine ‘where your child is at’ in terms of their current mathematical knowledge.
Sometimes there is also an interview. The interview (usually given by a Head of Year or member of the school’s Senior Leadership Team) won’t consist of knowledge-based questions.And it won't be scary - promise. It’ll be more of an informal chat, where the teacher/leader tries to set your child at ease, get to know them a bit better (questions about hobbies and sports, their family, holidays etc are typical) and assess their level of communication in English & social confidence.
Occasionally a school will also request an in-class observation whereby your child would join a class for half a day/a full day - to see how they ‘fit in’ socially and whether your child can access and engage with the learning in that class.
Literacy, Numeracy, Academic Potential.
Your child will need to sit English and Mathematical checks, as for Primary - though obviously set at a higher difficulty level.
The other type of testing used by most international schools here now is “CAT 4 Testing” . You can read a bit more about it here. But in brief:
CAT4 is an online test, designed by a UK Company called GL Assessment. It’s used by more than 50% of Secondary schools in the UK, and a large number of international schools too.
It involves a range of questions that take around 2 hours. It includes tasks that involve thinking about shapes and patterns (Non-Verbal Reasoning), words (Verbal Reasoning), numbers (Quantitative Reasoning). Some questions are answered by mentally generating and transforming visual images (Spatial Ability). It’s not based on any prior knowledge so it’s perfect for international schools which accept children from a diverse range of academic backgrounds.
If you’d like to get a better understanding of CAT4 Testing, check out this really helpful (if slightly dry) video.
Some British international schools still use YELLIS (for students entering Year 10) and ALIS (for children entering Year 12). These are also done online, and produce similar results to the CAT4.
From these tests, schools can get a good sense of your child’s academic strengths & weaknesses.
HOW CAN MY CHILD PREPARE FOR THESE TESTS?
The Secondary CAT4 Tests are skill-based, not content-based. This means you can’t prepare your child for them - there’s nothing they can ‘rote learn’ or memorise to help them prepare.
For the English language & Mathematical tests in Primary & Secondary: you can’t prepare for these either. You don’t know exactly what they’re going to ask, and you’d go crazy trying to figure it out. The schools aren’t trying to ‘catch children out’ - they’re just seeing what they know right now and whether they’d be a ‘good fit’.
For the Interviews: Again, you can’t prepare your child for these! (Schools can see right through ‘rote learned’ answers and will deliberately change their line of questioning or ask ‘out of the box’ questions to ensure they get an accurate picture of your child’s communication skills in English).
WHAT IF MY CHILD DOESN’T DO WELL IN THE TESTS?
This is very hard to answer as schools approach this on a case-by-case basis. But here are a few points:
If your child doesn’t do well on one part of the testing - say Maths - but they’re still within ‘age appropriate’ levels, there shouldn’t be a problem.
If your child doesn’t do well on one part of the testing, and they’re below age-appropriate levels, the school will check whether they able to give the support that your child will need. This will depend on how many specialist staff they have, how many other children in the year group have similar needs, etc. They should speak to you about this.
If your child has limited English, but scores well in other parts of the testing, there shouldn’t be a problem if they are younger than Grade 7/Year 8. Beyond that, almost every school I have visited gets stricter about English language ability, due to the increasing academic demands of the courses from that point onwards.
If the testing suggests your child might have a learning difficulty - or if you already know that your child has one (or might have one) - they request additional reports, tests or interviews to work out what sort of support is needed. In some cases, they might ask you to get an official Educational Psychologist’s report (if you don't already have one) so that they know exactly what need/s your child has. I’d recommend getting in touch with the amazing Samia at Optimal Learning if this happens to you; KL-based, she’s incredibly knowledgeable & offers a range of services to support children with learning difficulties. Sadly, some international schools here in KL will 'flat out' refuse to accept children with learning difficulties - others are far more inclusive.
I hope some of this is helpful! Obviously every school is different and approaches entrance testing slightly differently - so this is just a general overview. Luckily, most international schools will openly share what their entrance testing involves so if you are interested (or worried!) then please give the school a call to find out more.