By Meg Loughran
If a child is demonstrating average performance in school, he is not generally considered to be underachieving. However, average performance may be underachieving for a bright student who should be performing higher given his ability. A bright student who looks average may be compensating for processing weaknesses and struggling to achieve average grades. It is up to examiners to look beyond average grades at test item analysis, school work, and school history as well as standardized tests in order to get a complete picture of a child's strengths and weaknesses.
The following story about "Steve" is an example of a bright student who struggled in school but was not diagnosed with learning disabilities until he was a junior in high school. Steve's mother reported that reading "did not come easy" for her son. He always had to work harder than the other students to earn average grades. On standardized tests he has taken in the past, many of Steve's scores have fallen in the average range; however, his mother reported that although, at times, his test scores are at least average, these scores and his grades at school do not reflect the amount of time and effort he puts into his work. Steve is currently a junior in a private high school in the suburbs. His parents have been concerned about his academic performance since he was in elementary school. He has been tested many times for learning disabilities by private practitioners as well as through the public school system. However, his parents have not been satisfied with the results of the evaluations. Despite discrepancies among test scores during his evaluations, Steve was not found to have learning disabilities seemingly because he earned average scores on tests of achievement. Steve was also evaluated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when he was in middle school.
Difficulty maintaining attention was indicated, and Steve began taking medication. Although the medication did help Steve's attention, his parents still felt something else was holding him back from achieving up to his potential. In the winter of 2000, Steve and his parents came to Learning Specialists Associates seeking a psychoeducational evaluation. Now that he is stable on medication for his ADHD, Steve's parents wanted a current picture of his cognitive processing and academic abilities. Steve will apply to college next year, and he and his parents want to find a school that will best meet his academic needs. Test results indicated Steve's intellectual functioning to be in the High Average range (WAIS-3). Relatively weak visual processing and word retrieval difficulties were indicated during this evaluation. These weaknesses negatively impact Steve's reading and written language achievement. Similar to his school performance and performance during previous diagnostic evaluations, many of Steve's scores were at least average.
It was necessary for the examiner to analyze Steve's performance on tests even if they appeared average, review essays written at school, and consider his history of academic struggle in order to determine a clear picture of Steve's learning profile. Academically, in the area of reading, underachievement was noted in decoding words in context (written paragraphs), resulting from visual discrimination, visual analysis, and word retrieval weaknesses. It is important to note that Steve scored in the average range when decoding words in isolation likely because he slowed down and attended carefully to the words. If the examiner had not administered an oral reading measure, this difficulty decoding words in context would not have been evident. Similar to his performance during previous evaluations, Steve's reading comprehension on measures administered during this evaluation was adequate. However, it is likely that difficulty decoding impedes his comprehension at times, especially when he reads lengthy passages independently and does not automatically monitor his reading for meaning. In the area of written language, relatively-weak visual discrimination, visual analysis, and visual sequential memory impede Steve's spelling and proofreading skills.
Difficulties with word retrieval, attention, and planning negatively impact Steve's written formulation. Although difficulties with proofreading and spelling were indicated on standardized test measures administered during the evaluation, it was necessary to examine Steve's essays from school to understand his difficulties with written formulation as his scores on standardized measures of written formulation were in keeping with his High Average ability.
Results from this psychoeducational evaluation indicated that Steve is Learning Disabled with specific visual processing and word retrieval weaknesses causing underachievement in decoding, spelling, written formulation, mechanics and proofreading. Although many of Steve's scores appeared at least average, item analysis and review of writing samples from school in addition to scores on standardized tests revealed significant processing weaknesses that cause underachievement compared to Steve's High Average potential. Clearly, clinicians must look beyond test scores and seemingly average performance when a bright student is reported to be struggling. Average grades and test scores do not always indicate that there are no learning problems. Hopefully, Steve and his parents now have a better understanding of his learning profile, and he will receive the long overdue academic support to which he is entitled.
Meg Loughran, M.A. is in private practice in Oak Park.