Everything You Need to Know About Computerized Adaptive Testing

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If you’ve ever heard of the NCLEX before (which we are guessing that you have), you know that this is no ordinary test! This nursing licensure exam is unique from other tests in so many ways, and understanding all of its features is crucial to passing.

In this article, we’re taking a look at the method behind scoring the NCLEX, called computerized adaptive testing, how it works and why it’s used for arguably the most important test of a nurse’s career.

What is Computerized Adaptive Testing?

Computerized adaptive testing, or CAT for short, is the testing method that is used to administer the NCLEX. This method uses some of the best technology available today to decide which questions a candidate will see during their exam, and then to measure their competency based on their answers to those questions.

Fun fact: CAT uses some seriously advanced technology and sounds very innovative, but did you know that it’s actually been around for decades? The NCLEX started using CAT in 1994! Don’t worry, the technology and algorithms behind the CAT are updated regularly to ensure that it is still the best way to administer this very important test.

Related Read: NCLEX 101 – Exam Essentials

There are many reasons why CAT is used for the NCLEX, but in order to understand those reasons, you must first understand how the CAT technology works. 

How Does CAT Work?

Let us break this down simply! You have just sat down in front of a computer in a Pearson Professional Testing location to take the NCLEX. The proctor tells you that you may begin, and the first question comes up on your screen.

If you answer the question correctly, you give CAT reason to believe that you can probably answer questions that are easier than that one, too. Asking you questions that the computer already knows that you know won’t help it to determine your ability, which is the whole purpose of the NCLEX.

So when you get a question correct, the next question that the test gives you will most likely be more difficult. By challenging you, the computer can gather more information about your true ability level. The questions should continue to become more difficult as long as you keep getting them correct. 

On the other hand, when you get a question wrong, the next item that CAT gives you should be slightly less difficult. If you then answer that question correctly, a slightly more difficult question will follow it, and so on. The test will keep asking you questions using this more-or-less difficult pattern until it can make a confident decision about your competency for being a nurse.

Related Read: Alternate Item Formats and How to Prepare for Them

Keep in mind that this is a simplified version of how the NCLEX actually works. There is truly a lot of logic that goes on within this algorithm to determine your next question, but this helps to paint a picture of what goes on behind the screen. For a great visual representation of this question difficulty pattern and more information about CAT, check out this video from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

Fun fact: It’s important to remember that everyone will miss some questions because items are programmed to be increasingly difficult until one is answered incorrectly.

Why Does the NCLEX Use CAT?

One of the biggest reasons for using CAT is that it is a more efficient testing method than traditional testing. CAT helps reduce the number of “easy” questions that high-ability candidates get because those questions don’t actually help to determine the candidate’s ability, so asking them would be counterproductive. CAT also reduces the number of “hard” questions that low-ability candidates get because candidates tend to guess on items that are too difficult, which can skew results. By using CAT to give each candidate questions that are exactly the right level to truly test that candidate’s ability, the test is much more efficient.

Related Read: NCSBN Resources to Help You Prepare for the NCLEX

CAT also helps to prevent security risks for NCLEX questions. Because every candidate will see different questions during their test, it is much less likely that items will be leaked because there is no guarantee that any specific item will be on a candidate’s test.

If you want to read more about computerized adaptive testing and how the computer uses this technology to decide whether you pass or fail the NCLEX, check out this page on the NCSBN website.

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