Some commonly used tests to assess for learning difficulties

Updated: Jul 4, 2019

How easily and quickly a student’s literacy and numeracy skills develop can be impacted by many things such as the type of instruction, physical and mental health, as well as the resources available both at home and at school. An additional factor that is known to influence learning is the student’s cognitive ability profile.

Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills that help us process different types of information (such as visual versus verbal information) and produce different outputs (such as a written essay or a 3D model). Students who experience learning difficulties can possess weaknesses in specific cognitive ability areas. Identifying exactly where cognitive challenges lie provides information as to how to target support and cater for a student’s individual learning needs.

Over the last approximate 20 years a lot has been learnt about the different cognitive abilities that are important for literacy and numeracy development. The table below outlines a number of cognitive abilities that have been found to influence reading, writing and mathematics achievement.

An individual’s unique cognitive ability profile can be determined by conducting cognitive ability testing. It is important that cognitive testing occurs within the context of a broader educational assessment process.

Cognitive ability testing for the purposes of understanding why a student is experiencing learning difficulties needs to be conducted by a registered psychologist with experience and knowledge in the area of cognitive ability and learning. Often such individuals are called Educational & Developmental Psychologists. However other professionals regularly play an important role in the educational assessment and intervention process, such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists and special education teachers.

There are a number of cognitive ability tests available which vary in the range of different cognitive abilities they measure. New editions of these tests are often released as they need to be revised and updated over time to make sure they are appropriate for use with current society.  A general rule of thumb is that tests that are more than 10 years old should no longer be used as the accuracy of the results obtained can be impacted.

Often when trying to understand why a student is experiencing learning difficulties, in addition to obtaining a measure of their cognitive ability profile, it can be helpful to assess their current level of academic achievement in reading, writing and mathematics to determine where to target intervention and/or learning supports. Similar to cognitive ability tests, a number of achievement tests are available which differ in the range of academic achievement areas they measure. Once again tests that are more than 10 years old should generally no longer be used as the accuracy of the results obtained may be impacted.

The below table lists a number of commonly used cognitive ability and academic achievement tests that have been published within the last 10 years. Which cognitive abilities and areas of academic achievement each test measures is also indicated.

As can be seen from the table, not many tests provide a measure of all cognitive abilities that have been shown to be important for academic achievement. Therefore psychologists may use more than one test when wanting to understand an individual’s full cognitive ability profile. For example, at Raise the Bar Psychology we often start with the WISC-V but then supplement with other tests (such as the WJ IV and/or the CTOPP-2) when wanting to obtain a measure of the range of cognitive abilities important for both literacy and numeracy acquisition.

However, obtaining a measure of all cognitive abilities may not be needed in every situation. Rather, since students can present with different areas of academic strength and challenge, cognitive testing can be tailored to meet the unique needs of individual students. This is why it is important that such testing be conducted by a psychologist with experience and competence in the area of cognitive ability and learning.

Please be aware that the below table is a non-exhaustive list. There are a number of additional tests of cognitive ability and academic achievement published in the last 10 years that may be used to understand why a student is experiencing learning difficulties. 

Additionally, only a limited number of the below tests would be administered in any one educational assessment. It is NOT the intention of this article to imply that ALL of the below listed tests should be administered to an individual student. 

*traditional paper-and-pencil version

**iPad version