Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT)

The NCLEX uses CAT to administer the exam. CAT is a method that merges computer technology with modern measurement theory to increase the efficiency of the exam process.


This video explains why CAT is used for NCLEX and how it works. Topics covered include item selection and pass/fail rules. This video is available in both English and français.

Why CAT?

CAT is used for the NCLEX because it:

  • Reduces the number of "easy" items that high-ability candidates receive; "easy" items tell little about a high performing candidate's ability 
  • Reduces the number of "difficult" items low-ability candidates receive; candidates tend to guess on items that are too difficult which can skew results 
  • Reduces item exposure and subsequent security risks 
  • Improves precision of measurement of the NCLEX candidate's ability related to nursing and 
  • Provides a valid and reliable measurement of nursing competence 

How Does CAT Work?

  1. Every time you answer an item, the computer re-estimates your ability based on all the previous answers and the difficulty of those items. 
  2. The computer then selects the next item that you should have a 50% chance of answering correctly.
    • This way, the next item should not be too easy or too hard 
    • The computer's goal is to get as much information as possible about your true ability level 
    • You should find each item challenging as each item is targeted to your ability 
  3. With each item answered, the computer's estimate of your ability becomes more precise. 

Item Selection Process Overview Video

How the NCLEX Works FAQs

Pass/Fail Rules

The computer decides whether you passed or failed the NCLEX using one of three rules:

  1. 95% Confidence Interval Rule
  2. Maximum-Length Exam Rule
  3. Run-out-of-time (R.O.O.T.) Rule
    If the candidate runs out of time before reaching the maximum number of items, the computer has not been able to decide whether the candidate passed or failed with 95% certainty.

    Therefore, an alternate rule must be used:
    • If the candidate has not answered the minimum number of items, the result will be a failing exam.
    • If the candidate has answered the minimum number of items, then the exam is scored by using the final ability estimate computed from responses to all completed items.
      • If the final ability estimate is above the passing standard, the candidate passes.
      • If the final ability estimate is at or below the passing standard, the candidate fails.

CAT Definitions

  • Candidate ability - The level of entry-level nursing knowledge, skills and abilities that the candidate has.
  • Ability estimate - The level of entry-level nursing knowledge, skills and abilities that the computer has determined that the candidate has.
  • Passing standard - A cut point along an ability range that marks the minimum ability level requirement. For the NCLEX, it is the minimum ability required to safely and effectively practice nursing at the entry-level. Learn more about the passing standard here. 
  •  Logit - A unit of measurement to report relative differences between candidate ability estimates and item difficulties.