Unexpected Results: Test Scores Can Uncover a Learning Disability

Standardized tests have few virtues but not all are vices. One positive is that the tests serve as a tool for flagging a possible learning disability. How so? I’ve often asked my friend and partner-in-scribe , psychologist Dr. Bill Stixrud: “How does a teacher/tutor know when to refer a student for an evaluation and possible diagnosis of a learning disability, ADHD, or a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression?” Bill’s response: when things are unexpected. A student who is consistently average should consistently achieve average outcomes on tests such as the ACT or SAT. (“Ivy League or bust” parents, please take a breath. By definition, MOST people are average. 68% of us, if you want to get geeky, are within one standard deviation of the mean, but I digress.)

The most striking or clear signal of a possible learning disability comes from the kid who consistently performs well above average in school, but is well below average on a seemingly related task, a task based on the same skillset or knowledge base. Years ago, I met with a student whose PSAT scores were in the low 400s. Her highly competitive private girls’ school had an average SAT score above 1400. Oh, and the girl had a B+ average. After my gentle questioning, poking and prodding, the mom declared, “Look, if there were a problem, surely someone at her school would have said something!” “Ah,” I replied, “I can see why you think that, but we have new information.” The truth was, as was subsequently discovered, the girl was massively inattentive. Because she was not disruptive, however, no one imagined a problem. It was the PSAT that afforded the opportunity to see there was an issue, because her outcome in testing was unexpected.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that every under-performer has a learning disability. Diagnostically, it helps to make this a three-step process for any test or quiz, either in school or on standardized tests. Students, who are questioning their performance, could ask themselves these questions:

  1.  Did you have the knowledge?  Yes, you studied, but did you actually have mastery of the material? If not, look at how much you studied, and more importantly, how. Not all students have the right tools to make things stick. So, they may need to study differently, not just more.
  2.  Do you have the skills?  You may know every last fact about the Civil War or have been shown the quadratic equation a dozen times, but until you have written a coherent essay or solved a sticky problem by yourself, without notes or hints, you may not yet have the skills to apply that knowledge.
  3.  Emotion and motivation:  Once we know steps 1 and 2 are solid, but things are falling short, then we can start to ask, “What else?” Is there an attention, motivational, or anxiety issue? Is there an as yet unrecognized learning difference?

This process can be applied to almost any test or task where you or your child observe underperformance. And, lastly, because school, and especially standardized tests, can feel so stressful for so many kids, you need to be very mindful of your approach, especially if you are upset or concerned. Even a simple “What happened?” can – like so many parental interrogatives – feel more like an inquisition than just being inquisitive. Kids hear many adult questions as accusations with a question mark at the end. Nonetheless, it’s still good to be curious and concerned, especially when the results achieved are unexpected.