(ISC)² CISSP

CISSP computerized adaptive testing (CAT): 25 of your questions answered

February 10, 2022 by Dan Virgillito

As of December 2017, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) exam follows a Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) format for all English-language exams. For those unfamiliar with this type of test, it can provide a remarkably different experience.

In addition to the questions below, more information can be found in our free ebook, CISSP exam tips from students and instructors, or in our CISSP certification hub.

General questions

1. What is computerized adaptive testing (CAT)?

Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) is a computer-based testing format in which candidates are presented with questions that are uniquely tailored to their individual abilities. While traditional linear fixed-form exams present candidates with an ordered series of questions, CAT exams adapt the difficulty of questions presented to candidates depending on their responses to previous questions.

The adaptive algorithm allows the CAT exam to measure the candidate’s ability in the most efficient way possible.

2. How does it function?

All CISSP CAT exam candidates start with items that are below the passing standard. After a candidate has addressed an item, his/her ability is re-estimated by the candidate based on the difficulty level of all presented items and the provided answers. With the answer to each additional item, the system becomes more precise at estimating the ability of candidates — collect as many details as possible about the true ability level in a way that’s more efficient than conventional, linear exams.

The precise evaluation ensures that students can minimize the allotted exam administration time to 3 hours from 6 hours. Also, the number of items required to access the ability of the candidate is reduced from 250 items on a fixed-form linear exam to just 100 items on the CISSP CAT exam.

The passing standard and content outline for the two versions of the exam are exactly similar. The same content is used to assess all candidates, and they are required to demonstrate the same competency level regardless of the format.

Each CISSP concentration exam, as well as CISSP exams in other languages, are conducted as linear, fixed-form exams.

3. How does computerized adaptive testing (CAT) work?

The CAT exam is a challenging exam in which both the number of questions and the difficulty of each question vary depending on the ability of the candidate.

Candidates are first presented with a question considered well below the difficulty standard required to pass the exam. Each time the candidate answers a question, the computer evaluates their ability to get the next question correct based upon previous submissions and the difficulty of previous questions. The computer then presents a question that the algorithm determines has a 50% chance of being answered correctly.

Put simply — the more questions the candidate answers correctly, the more difficult the test will become. As the candidate answers more and more questions, the computer’s estimate of their ability becomes more precise.

4. Why is (ISC)² changing the CISSP exam to the computerized adaptive testing (CAT) format?

(ISC)² changed the format of the CISSP exam to CAT in 2017 with three main goals in mind — creating a testing system that is more efficient, more reliable and more secure.

The CAT format is considered more efficient because it will reduce the average exam time from between five and six hours down to just three hours, allowing more opportunities for examination administration. The CAT format is considered more reliable because the adaptive format provides a more precise evaluation of a candidate’s competency. The CAT format is considered more secure because the questions presented are continually changing, which limits the number of times individual questions are revealed.

5. Will the change in exam format affect the updated versions of the exam?

The May 2021 exam update involves changes to the content of the CISSP exam. The CAT update from 2017 is only a change to the format of the exam.

6. Which (ISC)² exams will change to the computerized adaptive testing (CAT) format?

Only the English version of the CISSP exam is available in the CAT format. CISSP exams conducted in languages other than English as well as all other (ISC)² certification exams will still be conducted using the previous fixed-form, linear format.

7. Can I take the old, linear format for my English CISSP exam?

No. As of December 18th, 2017, the English version of the CISSP exam will no longer be offered using the previous fixed-form, linear format. It will only be available using the CAT format.

8. Is the CAT format of the CISSP exam more expensive?

No. The cost required to take the English CISSP CAT exam will remain the same as the non-English CISSP exams. Current pricing for all (ISC)² certification exams can be found in our CISSP exam overview article.

9. Where can a I take the CISSP CAT exam?

CISSP CAT exams are available exclusively through Pearson Professional Centers (PPCs) and (ISC)²-authorized Pearson VUE Select Test Centers (PVTC Selects). A current list of (ISC)²-authorized test centers can be found on the Pearson VUE website.

Format of CISSP exam

10. How many questions will I have to solve on the CISSP CAT exam?

The CISSP CAT is a variable-length adaptive test, which means the number of questions presented to each candidate will change depending on their previous answers. Candidates will be presented with a maximum of 150 questions and a minimum of 100 questions.

Within the total number of questions presented, candidates will receive 25 unscored questions that are used to evaluate future tests. To receive a pass/fail result, the candidate must answer a minimum of 75 scored questions and a maximum of 125 scored questions.

11. Will the CISSP CAT exam contain experimental questions like the previous format?

Yes. The CISSP CAT exam will contain up to 25 unscored experimental questions that are used to evaluate future tests, and will not impact the candidate’s final score.

12. Will I get section-based questions on the CISSP CAT exam?

No. The questions presented are randomly chosen from a sample that is adapted depending on previous answers. This means that content will not be presented in predetermined sections, and it is possible that candidates may not see content from certain subdomains.

13. What kind of content will be tested on the CISSP CAT exam?

The content tested on the CISSP CAT aligns with the current CISSP domains the common body of knowledge. Read our CISSP domain overview article to learn more.

14. Can I change or review the answers on the CISSP CAT exam?

No. Because of the adaptive nature of CAT exams, candidates will not be allowed to review or change answers that have been finalized.

Scoring rules for the CISSP CAT exam

15. Is the CISSP CAT format more difficult than the old CISSP exam format?

Overall, the average passing rate of the CISSP CAT exam should remain the same as the average passing rate for the previous CISSP exam. However, the change in test format may psychologically affect certain candidates, which could, in turn, affect the passing rate.

While the content presented in the new CAT exam will be the same as the content presented in the current CISSP exam, it is impossible to say that one exam is more or less difficult than the other. As the content presented to candidates changes depending on previous submissions, candidates with higher ability may be presented with questions that are considered harder. Candidates with lower ability may be presented with easier questions, but this is generally a sign that they are not performing well on the exam.

16. How does the CISSP CAT end and how are results determined?

The CISSP CAT exam ends in one of three ways.

  • Maximum allotted length: If the confidence interval rule has not been invoked, the exam ends when the candidate has reached the maximum number of questions allowed to achieve a passing score. The computer examines the previous 75 scored questions, and if the candidate’s estimated ability remained above the passing standard for the entire time, the candidate will pass. If the candidate’s estimated ability dropped below the passing standard at any time, the candidate will fail.
  • The confidence interval rule: The exam ends when the candidate has passed the minimum exam length (100 questions), and the computer has determined with 95% statistical confidence that the candidate has displayed a certain ability. If the computer determines that the candidate can no longer achieve a passing score based on statistical data, the candidate will fail. If the computer determines that the candidate can no longer achieve a failing score based on statistical data, the candidate will pass.
  • Run out of time: If the confidence interval rule and the maximum length rule have not been invoked, the exam ends when the candidate has reached the maximum allowed time for the test (three hours). The computer examines the previous 75 scored questions, and if the candidate’s estimated ability remained above the passing standard for the entire time, the candidate will pass. If the candidate’s estimated ability dropped below the passing standard at any time, the candidate will fail. If the candidate has not answered 75 scored questions, the candidate will fail.

17. Do all the questions count equally towards the final score of the CISSP CAT exam?

No. The candidate’s estimated ability is shaped significantly by early questions. If the candidate performs poorly on initial questions, the candidate’s estimated ability will drop below the passing threshold. When that happens, it will be difficult for the candidate to raise their estimated ability above a passing level.

Time limit for the CISSP CAT exam

18. Is there a time limit for the CISSP CAT exam?

The maximum allowed time for the CISSP CAT exam is three hours. There is no minimum time limit. Candidates who need extended time due to medical conditions are required to get pre-approval from (ISC)².

19. Does a more extended session mean I’m doing well and close to passing CISSP CAT exam?

Not necessarily. The CAT program continually adapts questions depending on the candidate’s ability, which means the length of a passing test can vary from person to person.

20. Can I take breaks during the CISSP CAT exam?

There is no limit to the number or duration of breaks the candidate may take. However, break times will be included in the three-hour CISSP CAT administration time limit, so candidates should consider this when taking a break.

CISSP CAT results

21. When do I receive the results of the CISSP CAT exam?

The results of the CISSP CAT exam will be available immediately upon completion of the test.

22. Is it possible to re-take CISSP CAT exams?

For both the English CISSP CAT exam and other linear CISSP exams, candidates can site the test three times within a 12-month period with certain exceptions:

  • If a candidate is unable to pass the exam on the first try, they must wait a minimum of 30 days before re-testing.
  • If a candidate is unable to pass the exam on the second try, they must wait a minimum of 90 days before re-testing.
  • If a candidate is unable to pass the exam on the third try, they must wait a minimum of 180 days before re-testing.

23. Will I see my score if I fail the CISSP CAT exam?

Yes. Just like the traditional linear CISSP exam, candidates who fail the exam will be given a printout with diagnostic feedback highlighting strengths and weaknesses in each domain.

This feedback is designed to help candidates study for future tests.

Preparing for the exam

24. How should I prepare for the CISSP CAT exam?

The content presented in the CISSP CAT exam and the traditional linear CISSP exam is the same, so candidates should not change their preparation style for the new testing format. However, candidates should be mentally prepared for the adaptive change in the difficulty of questions, which is based on an estimation of their ability.

In CAT tests, all candidates are expected to get around 50% of the questions correct. In this style of exam, the candidate’s overall ability is measured by analyzing the difficulty of questions that are correctly answered, not the total number of questions correctly answered. This means that many candidates may believe they performed poorly when they actually performed well.

If you don’t feel entirely confident about your exam prep, consider enrolling in a CISSP boot camp or self-paced CISSP training course.

25. Where can I find more information about the CISSP certification?

More information and free resources for CISSP preparation are available in our CISSP certification hub.

Posted: February 10, 2022
Author
Dan Virgillito
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Dan Virgillito is a blogger and content strategist with experience in cyber security, social media and tech news. Visit his website or say hi on Twitter.

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