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Assessment of Processing Skills

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 1, 2011

In our case study, the psychologist has found that Jason has a significant discrepancy between the performance that would be predicted by his intelligence score and his actual academic performance in the areas of reading and written expression. The next step might be to administer additional tests to determine whether learning difficulties result from problems that Jason might have in processing auditory or verbal information.

What Is a Processing Assessment?

A significant discrepancy between ability and achievement suggests that there is some factor other than learning ability that is undermining a child's academic success. There are several possible reasons why a child may encounter academic difficulties, including a lack of motivation, lack of interest, frequent absenteeism, emotional or behavioral difficulties, family or adjustment difficulties, and processing problems. Children whose academic success is compromised by processing difficulties often can be diagnosed with a specific learning disability that describes the nature of their specific processing problem.

What Kinds of Processing Problems Exist?

Children with specific learning disabilities likely have no physical vision or hearing problems, and the majority of these children have average to above-average intelligence. However, their ability to be successful academically, and sometimes socially, can be compromised by unique deficits in how information is processed. An overview and in-depth discussion of the various types of specific learning disabilities can be found in Chapters Two and Three. At this point, the focus will be on the role of assessment in determining the nature of processing difficulties.

Information processing can break down as information is received at the input stage (auditory, visual, or motor recognition problems), at the integration stage (interpretation, short- and long-term memory, or organization of information), or the output stage (oral, written communication, or motor responses). Children who have problems with attention and concentration often experience difficulty receiving information and sustaining attention long enough to allow for sufficient interpretation. Impulsive children may jump to the expression stage and virtually bypass the interpretive process.

Weaknesses in processing information can occur at several different levels and can result in specific learning problems. Some of the more common types of processing skills and deficits are listed in Table 8.3. Possessing difficulties in any of these areas can result in poor academic performance despite good intellectual ability and motivation. Children with these types of processing problems are often very frustrated, painfully aware of their poor academic progress, and may suffer from low self-esteem.

How Are Processing Deficits Assessed?

The psychologist may use one or more of the several available instruments for measuring processing skills and deficits. Some of the more common instruments used include

  • Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Cognitive Abilities (WJ III)
  • Children's Memory Scale (CMS)
  • Wechsler Memory Scale, Fourth Edition (WMS-IV)
  • Test of Memory and Learning, Second Edition (TOMAL-2)
  • Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning, Second Edition (WRAML2)
  • Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP)

As might be expected, these instruments also present results as standard scores, and they allow for a direct comparison of how processing skills align with intellectual ability. As a case in point, let's look at how our eight-year-old, first-grade student Jason scored on his processing assessment. The psychologist administered the WJ III Tests of Cognitive Abilities battery, and a summary of Jason's processing scores is presented in Table 8.4.

By now, the standard scores should begin to take on a more meaningful role, as we look at a third set of scores. Although Jason's scores suggest a significant strength, there are also several areas of processing deficits. On the extreme positive end, Jason has an obvious strength in Visual-Spatial Thinking. This result is consistent with previous scores obtained on his IQ test. Strengths noted on Block Design and Matrix Reasoning of the WISC-IV also measure visual-spatial reasoning. Remember that these were two of Jason's strongest subscale scores on the IQ test. Children with strengths in these areas often do well with mathematics.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, Jason is slow to get information down onto paper (Processing Speed), which would likely result in problems finishing written work or paper-and-pencil tasks on time. Jason's ability to retrieve information from long-term memory is very poor (Extremely Low range score in Long-Term Memory/Retrieval), and may result in the frustration of information being "here today and gone tomorrow." In addition, Jason is not an efficient thinker (which may result from poor organizational skills or may be influenced by his poor ability to retrieve information). Basically, it takes Jason longer to solve problems because he does not use the most efficient ways to sort, retrieve, and respond to information.

As you might anticipate, it is now time to compare these processing scores to expected levels that would be predicted given Jason's IQ or ability levels. A quick glance at the scores presented in Table 8.5 tells the story. When we compare standard scores obtained on the processing assessment with Jason's IQ score, it becomes evident that Long-Term Memory/Retrieval is well in excess of the 15-point difference (standard deviation) needed to suggest a significant difference between ability and processing skill in this area. Cognitive Fluency is also significantly below what would be anticipated (–15), while Processing Speed also approaches significance (–11).

Although the majority of assessment of processing skills or deficits would involve the psychologist working directly with the child, it is also possible to obtain information concerning processing skills through other techniques, such as classroom observation, teacher-parent interviews, and parent-teacher completion of standardized questionnaires.

In Jason's case, there are no complicating emotional, behavioral, or social problems, so the assessment ends at this point, because assessment of IQ, academic ability, and processing all present a consistent picture. If Jason had not been already diagnosed with ADHD, further assessment would have likely included rating scales for ADHD. An example of some rating scales for ADHD will be discussed.

Jason has a specific learning disability that is impeding his progress in reading and written expression. Jason's learning disability is manifested in significant difficulties retrieving information stored in long-term memory. Jason is also slow to generate solutions to problems. This sluggish tempo has an impact on his learning to the extent that Jason will often be "one step behind" his fellow classmates. The danger in this type of processing deficit is the cumulative impact of always playing catch-up in an academic world that is most likely full speed ahead. By the time Jason has come up with the correct solution, or retrieved the information from his memory bank, the class has probably moved on to another topic. As a result of the assessment information, Jason's educational team can now begin working on an intervention plan to help him develop more efficient memory strategies and to increase his fluency in thinking, reading, and writing.

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