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Comparing Standardized Testing Using the CAT or Iowa Basics Tests for Homeschool Students

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Dear Carrie

Which test between the CAT and Iowa Basics do you recommend, and why?

We are using and enjoying Heart of Dakota now, and we really like the Charlotte Mason method included. I live in MN, so starting in 2nd grade, I will need to have my kids tested. I have been reading about the more common tests. I’m leaning towards either the Iowa Basics test or the CAT. I want to administer the test at home. My son has some mild learning/processing issues, so I’m a bit nervous about having to test him. The timed sections may be an issue. I really dislike standardized tests, especially coming from a Charlotte Mason philosophy. But, you have to do what you have to do, right?  So, my question is, which test between the CAT and Iowa Basics do you recommend, and why?


“Ms. Please Help Me Choose a Test”

Dear “Ms. Please Help Me Choose a Test,”

This is such a good question! For our older boys, we did the Iowa Basics Skills Test for many years. We did do all the portions. I tested my boys yearly simply because I wanted to be sure we were covering all of our bases. Our boys did outstanding on the tests in all areas including science and social studies.

By the time we had four boys needing testing, due to time constraints, I switched to the CAT test. We did it through Seton. We also switched to the CAT Core Battery/Survey Edition to make the testing even shorter. My boys did very well on the CAT Survey also ending up in the 98th-99th percentile. The older boys had very similar scores to those they had gotten on the Iowa Basics Skills Test. I loved the shorter test time!

Let’s take a closer look at the CAT survey!

In comparing the two tests, the CAT Survey is much shorter time-wise to give to your child. This means it also has fewer questions. With fewer questions, each question a child misses has a greater impact on his/her score. The CAT Core Battery/Survey only focuses on the core areas of reading-related skills, language arts/grammar, and math. It does include grammar parts of speech, where the Iowa Basics Skills does not specifically include parts of speech.

At the younger levels, specifically grades 2 and 4, the CAT Survey is not written in as grade-specific a way. This makes the test questions seem all over the map, as far as level of difficulty goes. At the upper levels of the CAT Survey, this is less of a problem, and the test seems to level out. They may have corrected some of these issues in the new Terra Nova 2/CAT 6, but I have not yet given that version. The CAT does not require any credentials by the instructor in order to administer.

Let’s take a closer look at the Iowa Basic Skills Test!

The Iowa Basics Skills Test definitely takes longer to complete and includes many more questions. This can be a good thing though, as each question the child misses has less of a negative impact on his/her overall score. The Iowa test is more grade specific, making the questions feel more grade appropriate. There are also more questions for each subject areas tested giving a better overall picture of the child’s performance.

I felt the Iowa Test gave me a better picture of where my kiddos were in each area. You must be approved as a tester to give the Iowa Basic Skills Test. BJU or Seton approves testers.  You just need to provide proof of a bachelor’s degree. You can also order the test through them. To see a comparison of the various tests here, click here.

You can lessen the time it takes to give the Iowa Test by giving only the required portions.

One thing you could consider would be to give only the reading-related, language, and math portions of the Iowa Test. This would help lessen the time required to test. You can do this if your state does not require all portions to be given. Our state has now moved toward only requiring the reading, language, and math portions.

Math computation has also typically been an optional part of the Iowa Test. Usually there is a sticker on that portion of the test identifying it as optional. The timed math computation part of the test stressed my boys out. So, we later omitted it since it was optional. The rest of the test seemed just fine. You can often choose to do the research section of the Iowa Test or not. You’ll also find the Grades K-2 of the Iowa Tests are untimed, which is wonderful for those little ones!

You may want to consider the way the different tests handle the reading with younger students.

If I remember correctly, you read the Iowa test to the student in the younger grade levels K-2. You do not read the CAT Survey to the student at the second grade level on up. This makes it harder if the student is not reading well. The teacher is not to explain things to the student during the test but is there to administer the test. There are examples at the beginning of each section to go over with the student to make sure the student understands what to do on each part prior to beginning each new section of the test.

You might want to check which tests your state prefers.

Typically the Iowa and the CAT are accepted almost everywhere. The PASS test is not as recognized and may not be as readily accepted. Most states just require standardized testing from recognized tests like the Iowa, CAT, and the Stanford but often do not require a particular test. I also gave the Stanford test for years in my public school teaching days. You can give an online version of the Stanford test through Seton. I have not used this version in our homeschooling. But, you can give a complete or an abbreviated version of the test. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to give the test, as you give the test online. You could check with your state department of education for what is required by your state.

Either test will work, so pick whichever test you prefer!

Either test will work! We typically test over multiple days at our house, doing only 2 tests in one sitting (or 3 shorter ones). With the CAT Survey test, we only did one test session each day. When we did the CAT longer battery or the Iowa Test, we sometimes did two testing sessions a day. We did one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Here are a few testing tips!

The boys take the test after they are well-rested and fed. They take a brief break in between the tests to go to the restroom and have a drink of water. We make sure it is quiet while we are testing. The boys and I pray before we test. We try to give the test in a well-lighted, calmer area of our home. I set the timer, but I place it on a counter further away from where they are working. This way they are not constantly seeing the timer but can refer to it as needed. I warn them at the halfway mark of the time, and again as we get closer to the time being up. But, we try not to make the time their primary focus.

It is wise to pay attention that your child has not skipped filling in a bubble or has not filled in two bubbles on the same line as they take the test. This can make the child be off one line all the way through the test. We circulated the classroom and watched for this in the public school classroom too, as this is very traumatizing to children. I think your child will do just fine!  Testing at home is a friendlier environment than testing at school!


P.S. As always, proper placement in Heart of Dakota’s guides takes into account where children are skill-wise and helps them move forward in skills.  For answers to our top ten asked questions, click here!

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