The California Achievement Test (CAT) actually refers to several different types of tests that were first initiated in the 1950s to assess student progress. Since the mid 1990s, students have mostly taken one version of the test called the CAT/6, and since 2004, only grades 3-7 take the CAT/6 in California, as part of the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) program. Other tests do exist for the upper grades, including the CASHEE, or California high school exit exam.
Most forms of the California Achievement Test are called norm-referenced tests. This means a student’s score is compared to a group of students taking the test. They get a percentile, instead of a percentage-based score, though some include this second measure too. For example, when a student is in the 80th percentile that means they have scored better than 80 out of 100 students taking the test in the norm-reference group. As mentioned, some results also show exactly the percentage of questions that were answered correctly; however, the percentile measurement is more common.
Tests are usually broken down into specific areas. For instance, language arts may include reading comprehension, writing conventions and the like. These help pinpoint any weaknesses in specific areas. Similarly mathematics could be broken into areas like algebra, geometry, and computations.
Many students of average intelligence who do fairly well in school find these tests pretty easy and score well. Mostly, the tests are measuring basic skills. Lower scores may suggest a student needs more assistance in the classroom, while high ones could suggest the student is being under-challenged. Huge discrepancy between test scores (especially high ones) and grades (particularly low ones) might indicate learning disabilities. On the other hand, kids with test anxiety may have excellent mastery of material and be unable to reproduce it in test form.
The other thing that the California Achievement Test does when used in California is determine how well a school is meeting standards set by California. This helps to determine Academic Performance Index rank. In the state, schools get a ranking between 200-1000 (higher being better) that has some influence on how funds are distributed. Schools that routinely rank low may receive warnings or low funding, or they may have interventions to help determine what areas of teaching can be improved.
Unfortunately, schools with a high percentage of English language learners or with students of very low socio-economic status may have lower APIs and sometimes correspondingly low California Achievement Test scores. The state may be able to withhold some funding when API score remains low over a period of several years. If the school can show improvement in test scores, they may be able to avoid funding loss, and might qualify for extra financial help.
This means that tests like the California Achievement Test get intense focus in most schools. The students must perform well on them so schools get maximum funding and avoid state sanction. For those people who are not in favor of standardized testing, this excessive focus on taking such tests is problematic. Multiple choice testing can measure some skills but not others, and if schools spend a great deal of time taking practice tests or specifically “teaching to the test” there may be less time for some of the other important lessons that can be learned.
Despite criticism by some parents and educators about the California Achievement Test, there are even homeschooling parents interested in having their children take these tests to assess performance. It is possible to purchase some forms of the CAT, though this may be pricey. Parents that homeschool through a school district may be able to get testing opportunities for free.