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Have you been told your child will be taking CATs at school? Heard of them, but not sure what they are? Here's our summary of what they're all about (and it's nothing to do with a class pet).

What are CATs?

CATs stand for Cognitive Abilities Tests. They are designed to assess strengths and weaknesses in reasoning. The questions are multiple choice with five potential answers, and they can be completed on paper or on a computer under normal test conditions. CATs are sometimes applied in the workplace too, but they are used in schools to help teachers to identify each pupil’s abilities in four areas (one specific area or a combination may be used by your child’s school):

  • Verbal reasoning (thinking with words)
  • Quantitative reasoning (thinking with numbers)
  • Non-verbal reasoning (thinking with shapes and space)
  • Spatial ability (thinking with visual images)

Pupils taking CATs can be aged anywhere between six and seventeen. Each part of the test is examined for 45 minutes.

What is the purpose of CATs?

CATs are designed not to test knowledge or fact retention but children's abilities to think in particular ways including understanding, memory, reasoning and decision-making. The tests assess how well children can think through certain problems and apply logic or connect basic facts to arrive at the correct solution without any prior knowledge implied by the questions. This helps teachers to see what each child’s academic potential might be, as well as to identify weaker areas that may need additional support.

When do children take CATs tests?

CATs are used in both primary and secondary education. They are currently adopted in around half of secondary schools and a lower, but growing number of primary schools. There is a good chance your child will take CATs during their time at school.

  • Primary schools. Children are not formally tested during the four academic years between the SATs at the end of KS1 and KS2, but a school may still want to assess pupils’ progress and attainment. CATs can be taken any year between Year 2 and Year 6, but they are not usually taken every year, and when the tests are taken it is arranged at the discretion of each school.
  • Secondary schools. Schools can use CATs to assess pupils graduating from a primary to a secondary setting. The results of CATs in 11 year-olds can be used to stream children into sets for certain subjects where schools split pupils based on ability.

Are CATs set by the government?

No. The tests are created by GL Assessment with the official name ‘CAT4’ and are entirely independent of the government. The tests are marked by GL Assessment and the graded papers are returned to the school. They are not statutory so do not have to be taken by children in order for them to progress. For this reason CATs have no influence on a school’s league table position. There is no particular date when CATs are taken.

Can parents see the results?

Schools can budget for a copy of the report from GL Assessment to be distributed to parents. These reports are produced specifically for parents and are designed to constructively help them to support their child’s learning. Individual reports can also be purchased for teachers and pupils.

Can parents help prepare children for CATs?

Not specifically, since the tests are based on reasoning rather than knowledge so do not require fact-based learning, revision or preparation. However, encouraging learning at home and helping to develop reasoning skills will benefit your child so that they don’t feel daunted by the questions. Children can become familiar with the format of the tests, but past papers are not available to purchase; and it is best not to prepare too much so that the results are an accurate gauge of cognitive ability.

What if my child's CATs results aren't that great?

Since CATs are not statutory tests then they should be viewed as a measure of your child's academic strengths and weaknesses. A poor performance may be an opportunity for teachers to discover areas that require further work and arrange for additional support, and a learning experience that will help to better prepare your child for their statutory examinations such as SATs, GCSEs or A-levels. If you are concerned by your child's CATs results, talk to their teacher in the first instance and work with them on ways you can support your child's learning at home to help ready them for statutory examinations. See Supporting my child's learning for more ideas.

What are the arguments in favour of CATs?

As they are not formal tests, there is less pressure on children to do well in CATs. Relatively low scores in CATs can aid teachers in identifying areas of academic weakness in particular children and seeking to remedy them in readiness for formal testing. Secondary schools can favour CATs in order to stream children into sets for particular subjects. Some secondary school leaders believe that children are 'taught to the test' for their SATs at the end of KS2 in Year 6, and wish to see other measures of assessing each pupil's ability. It's felt that using CATs in conjunction with other tests and informal assessments help to provide schools with a more rounded view of each child's abilities so that they know how best to support them throughout their education.

GL Assessment, who create the tests, say that CATs:

  • Identify potential - Pinpoint underachievement and identify gifted and talented pupils
  • Personalise learning - Understand pupils’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Support communication - Present tailored reports to parents, pupils, teachers and senior leaders

What are the arguments against CATs?

Some parents and educators believe children are over-tested, and that because testing puts pressure on children and can make them feel stressed, non-statutory testing is undesirable. This becomes especially acute for some when children take CATs shortly after taking their SATs at the end of KS2, with testing at the last year of primary school and the first year of secondary school following in quick succession. Since CATs are not set by the government and have no bearing on a child's academic attainment or a school's league table position, they are viewed by some as a distraction.

Reviewed: February 2018

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