Making Sense of Psycho-Educational Assessments for Twice-Exceptional (2e) Children
In addition to all the new Special Education language and acronyms, now you have to make sense of all the complicated results and terms in your child’s report. What do they mean for your child? How is processing speed different from perceptual reasoning? What does the gap between your child’s IQ and his academic performance mean? What is the relationship between IQ and cognitive testing?
Understanding psycho-educational assessment terminology and concepts can be extremely confusing and overwhelming for any parent. The large variety of instruments available can further complicate your ability to understand what each of these tests is intended to measure. School psychologists and private clinicians utilize a wide range of assessment tools and instruments to measure many cognitive, academic, and social-emotional abilities in gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children.
In this post, you will learn about the main components of a full psycho-educational assessment completed within the public education system in the U.S. We’ll take a look at what an ideal psycho-educational evaluation should look like, and the reality of what you might actually see in your child’s evaluation report.
To make things easier for you, I have created a cheat sheet that goes over the most common cognitive abilities and skills you may find in your child’s psycho-educational report.
The purpose of a psycho-educational assessment is to help an IEP team determine if a child has a learning disability or other challenges affecting his/her ability to learn as well as provide individualized recommendations to address those needs. A psycho-educational report must contain information that answers questions about the primary referral concerns.
Ideally, an adequate comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation would include the following (not limited to):
- Standardized assessment tools looking at general intellectual ability, also known as Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests
- Standardized assessment instruments looking at strengths and weaknesses in various information processing abilities or cognitive functions, or how the brain processes information
- Standardized tools or data looking at academic performance. Some schools may use Curriculum-Based Measures (CBM) only
- Comprehensive background and social developmental history questionnaire
- Standardized rating scales and questionnaires looking at social, emotional, and executive functioning
- Standardized developmental screening tools (for early childhood development evaluations)
- Standardized adaptive functioning rating scales (only in assessments suspecting autism, developmental delays, or low intellectual functioning)
- A comprehensive review of relevant records
- Consultation and interviews with teachers, parents, and school staff
- Interviews with the child
- Multiple observations across different settings and at a variety of times
Every psycho-educational assessment report might look different depending on the school psychologist, the resources available within the district/county, the state’s rules and regulations, and the school’s leadership team. For example, some school teams that use Response to Intervention (RTI) might not be required to use IQ testing, and their reports might only include CBM data.
It’s essential to be familiar with your state’s rules and regulations and your district’s practices with regards to these requirements so that you can advocate for your child appropriately.
Unfortunately, some district psychologists might not take the time to conduct a comprehensive assessment that provides a clear picture of the child’s needs and abilities. For example, some school psychologists fail to look at the child’s background and social history or review available records. I know this because I have read and reviewed hundreds and hundreds of incomplete psycho-educational assessment reports that seemed to have been done just to check a requirement box and not actually to attempt to understand the unique needs of the child.
Therefore, you have to take it upon yourself to ask for an effective and comprehensive psycho-educational assessment. If you need support in this area, that is something I can help you with.
Despite the large variety of data -or lack of- that you might find in your child’s psycho-educational report, there are generally two main components of a psycho-educational assessment report completed within the U.S. public education system: Cognitive assessment and academic performance. In this blog post, we will focus on cognitive assessment.
Cognition refers to our ability to acquire knowledge and process information. It is a set of mental skills that our brains use to think, learn, remember, problem solve, read, and sustain attention. Cognitive assessment is a broad term that includes measures of intelligence, or general intellectual ability, and measures of information processing abilities, which include executive functioning.
Keep in mind that these tests only provide a snapshot of a child’s performance on a particular day. Each test has its limitations. There are a number of factors that can impact a child’s performance and assessment results on any given day. For example, things such as the child’s attention and motivation during the testing session, the lighting and noise level in the testing room, the level of rapport between the examiner and the child, whether the child ate well or slept well the night before, whether the child understands the test directions appropriately, and a myriad of other unknown variables. These are just a few of the things that can affect assessment scores and the validity of the results.
Tests of Intellectual Ability (IQ)
IQ tests are intended to measure general intelligence. Each IQ test is based on a particular theory of intelligence, and there are many theories out there. Most IQ tests combine data on a variety of cognitive abilities to provide a general estimate of intelligence.
The most commonly used IQ tests in US public schools are:
• The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Fifth Edition (WISC-V)
• The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence- Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV)
• Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales- Fifth Edition (SB5)
• Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test- Third Edition (NNAT3)
• Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children, Second Edition (KABC-II)
Now, let’s take a look at the most commonly measured cognitive abilities in the schools by dissecting the most widely used individual test of cognitive abilities for school-aged children, the WISC-V.
The WISC-V has seven core subtests, which generate a measure of general intellectual ability known as the Full-Scale IQ (FSIQ). These subtests are drawn from 5 areas of cognitive ability: verbal comprehension, visual-spatial reasoning, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed.
When this test is administered in its entirety, which rarely occurs in the schools, the core subtests combine with nine supplemental subtests to generate the following five different primary index scales:
Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI)
This index is a measure of verbal reasoning, concept formation, and the knowledge a child has gathered over their lifespan, also known as crystallized intelligence. For example, if your child is an avid reader, her VCI scores would probably be higher than those of a child who has had less exposure to a variety of books and a rich vocabulary. This is why this index is not a good measure of intelligence for children who are bicultural, bilingual, visual-spatial learners, or those with severe language difficulties. Questions from this index require verbal answers and the ability to manipulate verbal information. In my experience, many twice-exceptional children, especially those with dyslexia, autism, or language and speech delays, tend to receive low scores on this area.
Visual-Spatial Index (VSI)
This index is a measure of visual-spatial reasoning or the ability to evaluate visual details and understand visual-spatial relationships. Questions from this index do not require verbal answers. Instead, children are asked to replicate geometric designs, analyze visual-spatial relationships, and interpret and organize visually presented material. Think of exercises working with puzzles, mentally rotating visual information, and recalling visual information. An example of an activity that requires visual-spatial skills is using a map or landmarks to find your way home.
Fluid Reasoning Index (FRI)
This index measures the ability to manipulate abstract and novel information, independent of prior knowledge. Children are asked to complete visual patterns and solve problems using logic. This index looks at a child’s ability to notice underlying conceptual relationships between visual objects and identify patterns. Fluid reasoning is often confused with visual-spatial reasoning. To help differentiate between the two, think of visual-spatial reasoning as the skills an architect would use while fluid reasoning skills are those an engineer would use. Fluid reasoning requires understanding and identifying rules in visual information and applying those rules to solve novel problems.
Working Memory Index (WMI)
Working memory is an executive function that plays a crucial role in learning, processing information, and many day-to-day tasks. Working memory is like a temporary mental workspace where we hold the information we need to process and manipulate. Think of it as a mental sticky note where you can write down some information and use it for a limited amount of time. This index requires attention, concentration, and auditory and visual discrimination. Consequently, children with executive function deficits often receive low scores within this area.
Processing Speed Index (PSI)
This index is composed of two timed subtests. They measure speed, efficiency, and accuracy in performing automatic or simple tasks. This index also measures discrimination and attention to detail. Oftentimes, because of the timed component of these tasks, gifted children who also have anxiety or difficulties with sustained attention may have difficulties within this area.
As you may have experienced, many 2e children, especially those with attention difficulties, often receive low scores in subtests measuring processing speed or working memory, and sometimes both. These low scores may pull the overall IQ score down. Consequently, when an examiner only looks at the Full-Scale IQ score, their interpretation may not be an accurate reflection of the child’s true intellectual ability.
As I shared on this post about Twice-Exceptionality, one of the main characteristics of gifted children is asynchronous development. Twice-exceptional children often show peaks and valleys in their capacities and may have significant weaknesses that can mask their actual abilities. Therefore, IQ scores should never be used in isolation when assessing the abilities of a twice-exceptional child.
For example, if your child is administered the WISC-V and only receives the core seven subtests that generate the Full-Scale IQ (FSIQ) score, the results will only yield the Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI) and Fluid Reasoning Index (FRI). This information does not offer a complete picture of strengths and weaknesses, and it can be limiting in terms of providing insights into how to support the unique needs of a twice-exceptional child.
In order to have an accurate picture of how to support a 2e child, it is essential to look at cognitive abilities separately instead of just using one global score to describe their general intelligence. One way to do this is through the use of other tests that measure processing abilities, or how the child processes information.
If your child is twice-exceptional, your child’s psycho-educational assessment report should include at least one measure of information processing abilities. If your 2e child’s report only contains information from the WISC-V, make sure that the examiner has administered more than the seven core subtests that make up the Full-Scale IQ.
Tests of Information Processing Abilities
Information processing tests intend to gather data on specific cognitive abilities. For example, if a child presents difficulties with writing as part of the referral concerns, the examiner should look at processing speed as well as motor skills. Examiners can pick and choose from a variety of processing assessment tools that would provide clear information on the weaknesses and strengths of each child. The IEP team typically relies on the psychologist to use their professional judgment in selecting measures. That said, as the parent, you are a vital member of the IEP team, and your input about what instruments to administer should also be considered.
Some examples of tests of processing abilities used in the schools are:
- The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP): It is a measure of phonological awareness, phonological memory, and speed of naming.
- Wide Range Assessment of Memory and Learning (WRAML-2): It is a measure of memory functioning.
- The (TAPS-3) Test of Auditory Processing Skills (TAPS-3): Measures the ability to analyze, synthesize, and discriminate auditory information.
- The Woodcock-Johnson, Test of Cognitive Abilities-Fourth Edition (WJ IV COG): It is a widely used test and one of my favorite tools to use when I’m working with children I suspect to be twice-exceptional because it provides a clear profile of the areas of strengths and weaknesses. Besides providing information about a number of cognitive processes, such as short-term memory, auditory processing, processing speed, and other important cognitive abilities, the WJ IV COG yields a General Ability Index score that, when used in conjunction with other assessment results, can also be used as an estimate of general intellectual ability.
The key message is that psycho-educational assessment reports should be comprehensive and should include a variety of instruments and measures to create a clear picture of the child’s unique needs and strengths.
If your child is preparing to go through a psycho-educational assessment and you suspect your child may be twice-exceptional, make sure the examiner includes measures that can offer insights about your child’s strengths and not just about your child’s weaknesses.
I hope this has provided some clarity about the confusing world of psycho-educational assessments. I know you may have many more questions regarding this topic! Share in the comments below what are some remaining questions you have and I’d be happy to help to answer them.
If you are having difficulties advocating for your child or you suspect your child’s psycho-educational assessment does not provide a clear picture of your child’s needs and abilities, that is something I can help you with individually through an IEP Guidance and Strategy session. If you feel called, you can schedule a complimentary consultation here to explore if I can help.
Day Sanchez is a bilingual school psychologist, education specialist, and social and emotional intelligence coach. She has over eight years of experience working with gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children in public, charter, and private schools in California, Florida, and New Jersey. Her approach draws on social and emotional learning, positive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive behavioral techniques. In 2017, Day left the public education system to help 2e families advocate for their children’s rights. Shortly after that, she founded 2e Minds to provide guidance, support, and resources for 2e children and their families.