A Guide to the CAT Test For Homeschool Families

For many homeschooling families, the CAT Test (California Achievement Test) can be a useful and even valuable tool to assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses, track their academic progress and, in some cases, to help meet local/state homeschooling requirements. 

With homeschooling on the rise, we feel that it’s more important than ever for parents to understand the CAT Test and how it can relate to at-home learning.

To help out, this article will explore the CAT Test, how it works, how it’s scored, how it can be used in a homeschool setting, its pros and cons and more.

What is the CAT Test?

The California Achievement Test, or the CAT for short, is a standardized test used to measure the academic performance of United States students in grades K-12 across a broad range of subject areas, including reading, math, science, social studies and language arts. 

The CAT is often used by schools and homeschools to measure student progress and to help figure out any strengths or weaknesses they may have. 

picture of student taking test for reference

The test was originally designed in the early 20th century by the California Test Bureau (then part of CTB/McGraw-Hill) to measure the academic progress of California public school students. 

Today, however, the California Achievement Test has little to do specifically with the California educational system or its curriculum and is instead a popular assessment tool used by educators, families and schools across the United States.

What is The CAT Test Like and What Is Being Tested?

Subjects tested 

As mentioned, the CAT test measures a student’s understanding and skill across several core subject areas.


Depending on the grade, students are largely assessed on their ability to read and comprehend various texts (ranging from fiction, non fiction, poetry and more). 

In particular, the test may may assess a student’s vocabulary, their ability to understand the main idea of written material, their ability to discern tone, identify literary devices, compare and contrast texts and more. 

Language Arts

The CAT test also examines a student’s skills in language and communication. 

In particular, depending on grade, questions may test a student’s ability grammar, punctuation, mechanics, sentence and paragraph construction, and essential composition and writing skills (usually through written responses to prompts or essay questions).

example of a CAT test question in vocabulary for homecshools


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CAT is designed to assess a student’s ability in grade-level math, having students respond to various problems in computation, problem solving, data analysis and more. 

example question from sample cat test for homeschools


The CAT also tests a student’s knowledge of grade-level science topics and concepts (life science, physical science, earth science and so on). 

Depending on the student’s grade, it may also examine their knowledge of the scientific method, their ability to design and conduct experiments, draw conclusions based on evidence and so on. 

Social Studies

Rounding off the core subjects, the CAT test also examines a student’s familiarity and understanding of key social studies subjects, such as history, geography, civics, economics and more.

Depending on grade, questions may require students to explain events, themes and concepts, look at maps and charts, understand essential principles and even analyze sources and draw conclusions based on evidence. 

Test Format

The test itself is offered in both paper and online formats, and the test is largely made up of multiple choice questions with some open-ended and essay questions here and there in upper levels. 

The test takes about 2-3 hours to complete, depending on a student’s grade level and individual pace, and divides its subject-level assessments across multiple sections.

It is important to note that the CAT test is timed.

Although the exact time limit for each section really depends on the test’s intended grade level and specific version, generally speaking students are given about 30-60 minutes to complete each section. 

Is the CAT A Placement Test?

It is important for parents to realize that the California Achievement Test was not really designed and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a placement test. 

The test’s primary purpose is to measure a student’s knowledge and skill across a variety of subjects and to compare their performance to national norms in order to evaluate their progress and proficiency and to see where they might need help. 

As a result, the test is quite a bit less focused than a placement test and may not dig deeply enough into a specific subject to determine and suggest an appropriate level of instruction. 

CAT Results

As with most standardized tests, the CAT test generally will yield a score report that details a student’s performance area across its different subjects, as well as a percentile ranking that compares students to others in the same grade who took the test in that year.  

This score report can act as a snapshot of a student’s overall knowledge across their core subjects and, should a parent make the test a yearly habit, it can even be used to track a student’s educational progress over time.

Further, the test can be used to help families get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of students across several areas, which can be helpful in identifying any jagged learning patterns, such as being advanced in grade-level language arts but behind in math, that can be evened out with more focused help. 

What Do The Different Scores On A CAT Test Mean?

When parents get a result back for the CAT they may notice that there are several scores usually set into a table, much as in the fictional example below (NB: not from a real test or actual student).

sample example of a CAT test result for a fictional student

These scores are: 

  • Raw Scores (RS)
  • Grade Equivalents (GE)
  • National Percentile Rank (NPR)
  • And Stanine Score (S9)

Raw Scores

Probably the simplest and most intuitive score to interpret, raw scores consist of the number of correct answers a student provided for a section over the total number of questions asked. 

Grade Equivalents

Each section also features a grade equivalency score, which indicates at approximately what grade level the student is performing for a given subject.

Broadly speaking, it is calculated by taking the student’s score on a section and comparing it to the median score of other students at the same level.

Usually this is represented by two numbers separated by a decimal, with the first number being the student grade level and the second being the relevant month in the school year. 

For example, a grade equivalent score of 6.7 in math means that a student is performing at the level of a sixth grader in the 7th month of the school year.

National Percentile Ranks

Similar to other standardized tests, these show the percentage of students from the test norm group (the group on which the test was standardized) who performed at a lower level than a student – i.e. the number indicates the percentage of students taking the test that a child has done better than. 

A percentile rank of 80%, for example, means that the student scored higher than 80% of other students in the norm group for a given section. 

Stanine Scores

Stanine scores stand for STAndard score from a NINE-unit scale, and are a score from 1-9 that are based on the norm group’s mean (the average is represented as 5, the lowest score is 1 and the highest is 9). 

The score is usually used as a sort of quick way of comparing a student’s performance to peers in each subject area, and in general:

  • A score of 1-3 is considered below average
  • A score of 4-6 is considered average
  • A score of 7-9 is considered above average

Is The CAT Test Commonly Used In Homeschools?

While perhaps most often associated with traditional schooling, the California Achievement Test is actually pretty commonly used by homeschoolers as a way of assessing academic progress.

Because the test provides a number of scores comparing students to their peers on a grade and subject level, it can be a useful and somewhat objective way of determining if learning is on track and whether a student is performing above or below grade level in specific areas – something that can be very helpful for those using alternative homeschooling approaches and significantly non-aligned curricula. 

In many cases (although certainly not all – parents really need to check their local requirements and laws for themselves) the test may meet state and local educational authorities and agencies’ annual homeschool testing requirements and may be submitted along with other standardized tests, student portfolios and other necessary administrative paperwork. 

How Hard Is the CAT Test For Students?

In general, and unlike a Quant Q or SAT, the test is designed to test basic grade level knowledge in specific core subjects and really focuses on academic achievement, rather than looking at general literacy, critical thinking or reasoning skills. 

As a result, the test does differ quite a bit depending on the intended grade level of the student, with simpler and more easy to read questions aimed at younger students and longer, more complex and challenging ones aimed at older ones. 

By and large, however, the test should really not be much more difficult or challenging than a typical public school curriculum for a subject. 

That said, as with any other standardized test, how hard the CAT test is for students really depends on the student themselves. 

There are some factors beyond grade level knowledge that can impact a student’s performance. 

For example, the test is a couple hours long and is multi-subject. 

Some students may never have experienced a test of that length, may have a hard time switching between subjects and topics or may have a hard time sitting still for extended periods in general. 

Further, many students suffer from test anxiety and may find themselves suddenly blanking out on things that they otherwise know or otherwise not performing up to standard.   

Luckily, there are a number of prep tests for the CAT out there.

These can be a good way for parents to figure out how a student might perform on test day and can be quite helpful in getting homeschooling students, particularly those following alternative learning approaches, more used to a standardized test format. 

How Hard Is the CAT Test For Parents to Administer in a Homeschool Setting?

Typically, the CAT is designed to be given by a test administrator or proctor in a controlled environment.

However, these days the test can come as a kit or as an online test, which can allow homeschooling families to administer the test themselves at home. 

How hard this is really depends on how familiar a homeschooling parent is with standardized testing as the test can require parents to adhere to instructions very carefully, create a testing environment and monitor students throughout their exam.

Those who have administered a standardized test before should find the CAT test fairly familiar, while those who are new to the whole process may want to go a bit slower and take their time reading over its guidance and proctoring instructions.

The exact process for administering the CAT can vary a good deal depending on the specific kit used and any state/local homeschool testing regulations that may apply. 

Broadly speaking, however, parents administering the CAT Test at home can expect to do the following:

  • Set up and ensure a quiet testing environment, such as a separate room with a desk that students can write on 
  • Familiarize themselves with all testing instructions and prepare the materials, including the test booklets and answer sheets
  • Give the student a copy of the test booklet and answer form
  • Read all the instructions carefully and slowly to the student, making sure they know precisely how to fill in the answer sheet correctly and answer questions
  • Explain the time limits for each section, prepare some device to accurately measure time 
  • Monitor the student as they take their test, being ready to explain things or provide assistance as needed
  • Collect the answer sheet
  • Follow instructions for scoring and interpreting results

What Are The Different Ways Homeschooling Students Can Take the Test?

Homeschooling families have a few options when it comes to taking the CAT at home. 

Local testing centers

Should homeschooling families live in or near a larger city, chances are there may be a local testing center that can administer the CAT test. 

Alternatively, some homeschooling organizations often set up and run group testing for families in the area, usually renting some space at a community center or church for the purpose. 

In either case, a CAT testing center can provide families with a more convenient, structured and organized testing environment that can take a lot of the pressure off of parents

Purchase and use a physical CAT test kit

In the case where a homeschooling family does not live near a testing center (or if they would rather manage things from home), there are a variety of online companies, such as Seton or Academic Excellence, that allow homeschooling parents to order complete CAT test kits. 

These tests typically include everything parents need to administer the test at home, including its instructions, test booklets and answer sheets.

Many of these companies also provide CAT prep resources, which as we’ve mentioned can help some homeschooling students get used to this relatively long exam and its standardized, multi-subject format.

Online testing services

Finally, several companies also provide online CAT testing services.

Rather than visiting a testing location or waiting for a physical kit to arrive, once payment is completed families receive a link within a day or so that they can click on and that will take them to a digital version of the test that students can complete. 

Aside from being a bit more convenient, these online tests can be more automated than their at-home, paper-based versions, with things like exam timing and scoring done by the service once the student finishes. 

Pros and Cons of CAT Testing For Homeschools

The CAT can provide an measure of a student’s progress and achievement in several core areas of study, such as math, reading, ELA and scienceIt really only covers a subset of core subjects that homeschools may be studying
The test’s results can help parents identify where a student is particularly strong and where they may need a little more helpSome students do become anxious or stressed out at the prospect of taking a long, multi-subject test, which can distort results and provide an incomplete picture of student knowledge and ability
Homeschooling parents can get a firmer idea of how a student’s knowledge and skill compares to grade levelStandardized testing in general is kind of a one-size-fits all approach that may not account for different student learning styles or homeschooling approaches
In many cases, the CAT can be accepted as a way of fulfilling homeschool standardized testing requirements 
The CAT isn’t usually all that expensive, with online tests being able to be ordered for as little as $25
Because it measures grade level knowledge and skills, it tends not to be quite as inherently difficult or stress-inducing as some other standardized tests
There are quite a few options out there that make it easy for parents to administer this test at home 

Bottom Line

The California Achievement Test, or CAT, can be a useful resource for homeschooling families interested in a way of assessing their child’s progress in core subjects. 

State regulations for testing aside, the test can give parents a good idea of how a student’s knowledge and understanding compares to grade level, as well as providing them with a good sense of their relative strength and weaknesses in the subjects it tests. 

With all that said, it is important to remember that the CAT is just one of many tools in a homeschools educational toolbox, to be used alongside other methods of evaluation, such as portfolio assessments and projects. 

Photo of Jennifer Keenes, a writer for the smarter learning guide

Jennifer Keenes is a writer and a new mom living in Florida. She studied education and, prior to becoming a freelance writer, worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary and middle school level. She is a big fan of the beach, working out and homeschooling her two daughters.