What Is a CAT Assessment? Why Do You Care?

A computer-adaptive test (CAT) provides questions selected dynamically based on a student’s previous responses. Computer-adaptive assessment maximizes time investment by minimizing testing time and pinpointing student learning quickly. Test difficulty that is tailored to each individual student means reducing testing time. Precise test results means teachers can maximize their use instructionally. 

The DRC BEACON assessment was created as a computer-adaptive test (CAT), since this design has some substantial advantages that benefit students and their teachers over a more traditional fixed form of evaluation. A fixed-form assessment asks all students to respond to the same questions and complete the same tasks. An advantage of a CAT includes having test questions that are selected dynamically based on the student’s previous responses. If a student responds correctly, the next item is similarly or slightly more difficult. If they respond incorrectly, the algorithm used to design the assessment may next try an item slightly less difficult. In this way, student time is maximized.

That design choice leads to greater precision in the information reported across a full possible achievement continuum since the difficulty of each item is tailored to each individual student and their readiness level. Students in a class are not all at ‘fixed’ points in their learning, so the items are spiraled to the student from a deep pool of challenging items. They might pull from above or below the student’s enrolled grade level, depending on readiness for the content, so that the information gained is precisely connected to an individual student’s profile. That also reduces testing time as less time is spent on questions that are too easy or too hard. 

In an adaptive test like DRC BEACON, a student will initially be administered a few items of average difficulty. Then, the adaptive software algorithm will select subsequent items that meet the test blueprint specifications, to be certain to assess the required standards while concurrently matching the subsequent item difficulty to the student’s performance as they move through the assessment. The test ends once the requirements specified in the assessment configurations/expectations have been met and there is enough information to provide test scores as intended. Achievement estimates for total scores and subtest or reporting scores, along with the associated standard error of measurement and a growth measure, are then reported for the students. The DRC BEACON assessment is consistently testing students on the standards they are to have achieved by the end of the school year, and assumes growth is a function of the instruction provided.

The DRC BEACON computer-adaptive assessment is also flexible when it comes to decisions about testing time investment. DRC BEACON may be administered as a full content-area assessment or as domain-level testlets that are aligned to reporting categories. A testlet is a great way to pre or posttest specific content. A full assessment in mathematics can take 45–60 minutes and in English language arts (ELA) can take 70–90 minutes, to accommodate time for reading passages. Math testlets generally take 15–20 minutes, and ELA testlets are similar, except for the reading testlet, which will be 45–55 minutes.  Either way, teachers and students get the information needed to plan for growth.

The computer-adaptive format provides great precision across the full continuum of achievement. Fewer test items are needed to discern results while still ensuring that students are assessed according to the test blueprints or standards that need to be covered. Reports come back with specific data identifying student strengths and weaknesses. This means useful data to inform instruction with more time saved for instruction and learning. That is why the use of computer-adaptive testing is a great choice. Try it; you’ll like it!

“With our teachers, we find that what they really love about BEACON is the fact that it’s computer adaptive. It gives them great reports that help them know how to create their small groups for differentiation in their classroom. It provides them with resources to help them with instructional practices to fill in gaps or even to accelerate learners. While we have other products we’ve used that do that, what they like the most is that it’s aligned directly to our Georgia State standards. So, it does a lot of the work for them and saves them a tremendous amount of time when they’re planning instruction for their students in the classroom.”

– Lyn Turnell, Ed.D., Director, Student Assessment Department, Cherokee County Schools