As you prepare for the MBLEx, you may have seen the acronym “CAT” or heard an instructor talk a little about it. After talking to hundreds of MBLEx takers, both those that passed and failed, I know being familiar with CAT can make the difference in seeing the “passing” or “must retest” result on your MBLEx score report.
Without getting too crazy and throwing around terms like psychometrics, calibrated pool questions, and termination criterion, let’s learn a little more about the basics of CAT and what it means to your MBLEx preparation.
What is CAT?
CAT, or computer adaptive testing, is a computer-based test that adapts to the examinee’s (that’s you!) ability level during the exam. This type of exam gauges the examinees’ competence levels as test questions are tailored to each examinee’s knowledge levels during the exam.
To do this, each question in the CAT question bank has a predetermined difficulty level.
When the Exam Begins
A CAT exam starts with everyone having to answer a question of medium level difficulty. How the examinee answers the question determines the level of difficulty for the next one.
If an examinee answers the question correctly, the computer will then choose a question that is more difficult or challenging.
If the opposite happens where the examinee answers the question incorrectly, then the computer adjusts and chooses a less difficult or challenging question.
This adjustment of question difficulty continues after each question throughout the entire exam.
When the Exam Ends
The MBLEX test ends after 100 questions or if the time limit is reached.
If you meet the determined minimum competency standard by the FSMTB, you pass the MBLEx! Passing the MBLEx exam means it has determined your understanding of being a massage therapist is enough for you to be a safe, entry-level practitioner.
If you do not meet the minimum standard, you do not pass and must wait 30 days to retest.
If you run out of time without answering all 100 questions, you do not pass the MBLEx and must wait 30 days to retest.
Why does the FSMTB use CAT on the MBLEx?
Computer Adaptive Testing claims to be a more efficient and precise form of testing as it tries to identify each examinee’s competence level by analyzing and determining the level of difficulty he/she can answer correctly and consistently.
The former MBLEx exam pulled 125 questions from the FSMTB question database. A certain percentage of questions were anatomy, kinesiology, and so on. If a test taker scored at least a 630 on a 900 scale, they reached the minimum competency standard and passed the MBLEx.
Once CAT was implemented in 2014, only 100 were needed to determine competency since the new CAT format can determine a competency level faster, with fewer questions.
Advantages of Computer Testing and CAT
Efficiency and Precision
Test takers do not have to spend too much time on very difficult questions nor be bored by “no brainer” questions. Also, a properly designed CAT exam is able to measure and classify all examinees with the same level of precision.
Security of the test questions
In conventional exams, a group of test takers receives the same exact set of questions on their examination. For instance, almost everyone taking the New York or Hawaii state massage exams has the same exam on the same day (there are sometimes a few variations). These questions may or may not be used for future testing. CAT decreases the possible negative effects of future test takers unfairly knowing some of the questions ahead of time and the chances of fraud.
Immediate score report
With computerized tests, the computers do all the work in a very efficient manner. From question selection and administration, to checking of answers, analyzing of results, and even to the final step of scoring.
All these processes can be accomplished in minutes. Examinees do not need to wait for exam results to be posted like other professional licensing exams (physical therapists, New York and Hawaii massage license applicants). After you finish question #100 on the MBLEx, you will receive a printout with your MBLEx results from one of the Pearson employees.
Disadvantages of Computer Testing and CAT
Not everyone was happy when the FSMTB started using CAT. There are some disadvantages that need to be addressed.
Does not allow flagging for later review
This might be one of the top complaints of CAT. These examinations do not allow for questions to be skipped over or flagged for later review. Since the next question depends on is the examinee correctly or incorrectly answers the questions, it is compulsory that question is answered before proceeding to the next.
Also, this type of testing does not allow the examinee to go back and review or undo a question. This might be very frustrating for examinees, since some questions provide clues on how to answer succeeding and/or previous questions.
CAT exams may either be timed or untimed. In timed exams, like the MBLEx, some examinees may feel pressured since one cannot skip a question for future review. They are obliged to answer each item first before proceeding to the next which can worsen anxiety. Therefore, the test taker may spend too much time on one question and consequently affect his/her budgeted time. This may result in an inaccurate gauge of their competence level when the time expires.
Feeling like failing when you are actually succeeding!
I have lost track of the number of people that have told me they felt like they were failing while taking the exam, but ended up scoring very well on the exam (back when numeric scores were given). This is because they were doing well and kept getting difficult questions as the CAT exam continued to adapt.
If during the exam, you feel like you are struggling after initially succeeding, keep in mind you’re doing well. Don’t panic!
Using all of this information to prepare and PASS the MBLEx
Now that you have learned the basics of Computer Adaptive Testing, I promise this information will help you come exam day. If you have any other questions about CAT, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, get back to your practice quizzes!
Here are a few links about Computer Adaptive Testing from FSMTB:
Computer Adaptive Testing Video from FSMTB
What to Expect on the MBLEx from FSMTB
Gershonm RC. (2005). Computer adaptive testing.
Thompson, N., PhD. (2016, November 8). What is item response theory?
Yang, F. and Kao, S. (2014, June 26). Item response theory for measurement validity.