What In the World is a CAT?

The Computer Adaptive Test and You

What is a CAT?

And, no, this one doesn’t meow! It’s actually a unique testing format that has emerged with the burgeoning computer age. If the test you are preparing for has the acronym “CAT” in its title, that means it is a Computer Adaptive Test. We’d like to tell you just what that means.

First of all, a CAT is only administered via computer, so no paper and pencil versions are available. Your test may be available using paper and pencil, but it obviously won’t be computer adapted.

The CAT part of the test name simply means that the computer on which you are testing will be generating each question (except the first one) based on your performance on the preceding question. The test will usually begin with a question somewhere in the mid-level of difficulty, or a little bit easier. If you answer it correctly, the computer will give you a question that is a little bit harder next. If your answer is incorrect, you will be given a question that is a little bit easier.

The purpose of a CAT is to find out exactly where you stand in knowledge and skills related to the subject area being tested. A CAT is used frequently for tests that result in a license or certification. Many experts think that results from a CAT can provide a much more detailed picture of the test-takers’ skills and abilities, since it zones in on precisely their level of functioning.

What You Need to Know

Each CAT is designed by different people using different formulas to program the computer for issuing the questions. When a CAT is used for a pass-fail type of test, it will be different from a test designed to measure an exact competency. You will need to find out as much as possible about the particular format of the CAT you will take so you won’t have any surprises.

Having said all of that, here are some things to consider when approaching a Computer Adaptive Test. Besides adjusting the question delivery level, the CAT format is different from other tests in a number of ways:

Scoring for correct answers can vary. You may be given fewer points for easier questions and more points for the harder ones.

Similarly, missing questions can have varying results. You may be penalized differently for missing easier or harder questions.

Your testing time can vary depending on the time it takes the computer to figure out your level of competency. Please note, however, that a test may still have a time limit. If you take too much time to answer the questions, the computer may not reach your final level of competency and your score will not be truly reflective of your ability. Some CATs are untimed and speed will not be an issue.

The CAT format will not allow you to skip a question and go back to it. You must answer all the questions in the order they are presented. Similarly, you cannot go back and look at a previous question for reference when answering, nor can you skip ahead to see what is to come.

Final CAT Tips

Don’t assume anything based on the time it takes you to complete a CAT. Your testing time may be long or short and still yield the same score. When the computer has figured out your level, the test will end.

If you are taking any sort of a computer administered test, become very familiar with computers in general and seek some sort of orientation for your particular test. This way, you will be able to focus on the questions and not worry about procedures on test day.

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