Cognitive ability tests (CATs) are discussed in this series aiming to explains terms commonly associated with gifted and talented education

The cognitive abilities test (CAT) is a group-administered assessment of a range of reasoning skills. The tests look at reasoning with three different types of symbols: words, numbers and shapes/figures, ie verbal, quantitative and non-verbal reasoning.

The verbal reasoning element assesses reasoning processes using the medium of words. Such processes include: identifying relationships between things (eg ‘big’ is the opposite of ‘small’); creating correlates of such relationships (eg ‘big’ is to ‘small’ as ‘thick’ is to ‘thin’); identifying classes (‘hat’, ‘gloves, ‘___?’: pyjamas, slippers, scarf), and reasoning deductively (‘A’ is taller than ‘B’ and ‘B’ is taller than ‘C’; therefore ‘A’ is taller than ‘C’).

The quantitative tests look at the same processes, but use numbers as the symbols. For example, determining rules by analogy and applying these to new cases (2->3, 9->10, 6->_? (7)), determining patterns and relationships in series (1, 4, 7, _? (10)), or combining elements to form number sentences.

The non-verbal tests look at reasoning processes using shapes and figures. Because these questions require no knowledge of English language, or the number system, they are particularly useful when assessing children with limited English language skills. Comparisons of CAT scores and pupils’ attainment in subjects such as English and mathematics can help to identify those whose reasoning ability is average or above, even though general school attainment is low (perhaps because of disaffection). These pupils may be characterised as underachieving, and may benefit from targeted intervention.

It’s important to remember that any test score is based on performance on one day and may be affected by a wide range of motivational or other influences (eg the pupil may have been upset by home circumstances or an incident on the way to school; he/she may be feeing unwell, or simply very tired from being kept awake by an infant sibling).

It is rarely advisable to give advice or plan interventions based solely on test scores: they are only a small part of the picture and teachers need to know the whole pupil in order to interpret the results in an appropriate context. Test scores should feed into a broader assessment, bringing to bear knowledge of the pupil’s achievements in school subjects, their personal background and their attitudes, motivation and behaviour.

Read A-Z of G&T education (5): Compacting