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Friday, July 26, 2013

What’s Wrong with Testing?

From Smart Kids with LD

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
July 8, 2013

"To truly determine 'what’s wrong,' an examiner must consider the process, administer tests in specific areas, and collect clinical observations. Only then can appropriate help be provided."

Why we evaluate children is simple: Someone feels that something might be wrong, and they want to know what that something is. Often parents with bright children have to fight for testing because their children perform at grade level even when achieving below the level of their abilities.

The expectation is that testing will provide the answers to why a child is struggling. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Interpreting test results is not the exact science we’d like it to be. A child who is obviously struggling can test normal due to a variety of factors, none of which are usually accounted for in the evaluation process.

Confounding Factors

Situation: Testing is administered in a one-on-one setting, examining skills that are demonstrated within a few hours per session. By the nature of this setup, problems with organization, initiating work, stamina, and time management are not measured other than in behavioral checklists.

A student’s ability to pick out and remember salient information is minimally assessed, as is the ability to recall this information when needed without prompts. This testing situation is unavoidable, but the result is that much testing yields few numbers about problems that are critical for some children.

Scores: There can be significant problems in the way scores are understood and reported. As an example, the WISC-IV (IQ test) is not a test but a battery of tests. People often look at the Full Scale IQ as critical (“His IQ is not as high as you thought”) instead of seeing it for what it is: an averaging of 12 numbers.

A child who performs at an average level on all tests gets the same full scale IQ as a child who is superior on some tests, average on some, and does poorly on others.

You can learn more looking at the Index Scores for Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Organization, Working Memory, and Processing Speed, but again, these are averages of the component subtests. The evaluator has to look carefully at what we call the scatter, or lack of consistency among the tests.

She must also look at the process: How is the child achieving these numbers? Does he quit easily, or persevere? Does he need to talk his way through to an answer, or is he on the right track but fails to elaborate adequately? Is he impulsive? Does he miss easy items and get harder ones?

This critical information isn’t evident in the numbers. A child who does well on harder problems and misses easy ones may not really engage until he’s challenged; another child might simply have reached the limit of his ability.

What is clear, is that two children with reports showing the same numbers may have very different issues.

Tests: And then there are the tests themselves, which may be flawed. For example, The Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement-III (WJ-III) is commonly given as an achievement test in schools. The reading tests on the WJ-III involve reading single words, speed in reading single sentences and filling in a single missing word in a passage of a few sentences. This will pick up a child who doesn’t understand how to decode words, is a slow reader, or has slow graphomotor skills, but it doesn’t address the challenges of reading chapter books.

There is no measure for inferential understanding, predicting outcomes, or depth of comprehension.

The writing subtests on the WJ-III look at spelling, speed in writing simple sentences, and the ability to write single sentences to explain something, fill in information, or mimic the style of a writer. There is no need to organize writing, identify main ideas, elaborate or integrate ideas. A child who does poorly on the WJ-III has real problems, but a child who tests as average or even above may still struggle to produce grade-level work.

Testing should be extensive and process-oriented enough to address why a child struggles. It’s not useful to suggest that he shouldn’t struggle if he does. Standard school testing usually picks up children with poor basic skills, but children with higher order or more subtle problems may be missed.

To truly determine “what’s wrong,” an examiner must consider the process, administer tests in specific areas, and collect clinical observations. Only then can appropriate help be provided.


The author is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD. She is also on the faculty of the Norwalk Hospital Pediatric Development and Therapy Center in Norwalk, CT.

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