Scale Scores

This brings us to the range of scale scores and what they represent. The Wechsler test is supposed to be a test of intelligence and for these purposes, the three scale scores that are calculated correspond to a range of intelligence ‘category’, from Gifted to Learning Disabled:

Scale Score IQ Intelligence Range/Special Ed Category
130 and above Exceptionally Able/Gifted
90-110   Average (not a special education category)
70-79    Borderline General Learning Disability
50-68 Mild General Learning Disability
35-49 Moderate General Learning Disability
Below 35 Severe/Profound General Learning Disability

You might wonder what happens to those children whose scale scores fall between 80-89. The short answer is that they are not generally eligible for special education services; if their reading of mathematic ability is below the 10th percentile they will be looked after by the learning support teacher. If not, they are deemed to be doing as well as other children and will not receive any specialist assistance.

As has been stated earlier, observations are a helpful source of information but it must be remembered that all observations are subjective (liable to be distorted by hidden bias and differing levels of tolerance for learning differences and differences in behavioural skills). In any assessment the sole reliance upon observation and teacher-made tests is inappropriate. Assessment instruments that generate quantifiable data are a necessary part of the assessment process.

Academic testing

IQ testing is only one part of the assessment equation. In addition to taking a look at intelligence and how a child’s brain is processing information, it is critically important to take a specific look at academic achievement. Academic achievement in reading and mathematics can be assessed in a variety of ways. Teachers create tests in classrooms and make observations of children’s learning. These are all subjective and though they yield useful information, there also needs to be an objective assessment of academic skills, particularly reading and mathematics. Comparing and contrasting the subjective with the objective gives us valuable information about a child’s learning skills and achievement.

There are a great many tests of reading and mathematics; rather than list them, I will describe what academic testing consists of and how it must be compared with intelligence testing. The assessment of academic skills is a special education assessment. It differs from a psychological assessment in that it will generate no information about a child’s level of intelligence. It is confined only to measuring, with some accuracy, the academic skills a child has achieved to date – it is measured on an individual basis, with child and teacher working together in a private place by themselves. This sort of assessment is absolutely necessary in order to discover if the child has a particular type of Specific Learning Disability. It is also required in order to be able to measure the success of a special education programme for the child.

Academic achievement is subject to a great many variables as has been already stated. So, a test of academic achievement, like a test of intelligence, must be thoughtfully and carefully considered. Remember, tests don’t tell you anything – they give you evidence and data that must be interpreted in light of what one knows about the whole child. There are academic tests for just about any content area one can consider, but for the purpose of special education assessment, the two most common areas that are assessed are reading and mathematics. Let’s look at reading as an example of special education assessment.

How do we learn to read and how do we assess reading?

Reading is the final culmination of a large number of brain-related skills. Human beings are not biologically programmed to read. We are programmed to speak, to utter sounds, but not to read. Reading is something we impose on the human brain and it happens in a rather predictable sequence. First, the brain must be able to recognise the sounds of speech that make up words; these are called ‘phonemes’ (‘phonics’ is now a widely used methodology used when teaching children to read). Then the brain must begin to bunch these sounds together into words, while at the same time having a visual image of the word that is being heard or spoken. ‘C’ is a phoneme, so is ‘a’ and so is ‘t’. C-a-t soon enough become blended together to make a word that symbolises the animal we are familiar with and have an image of in our brain.

Sooner or later the brain has to learn that the sound of ‘c’ is also associated with a funny-looking shape called the letter ‘c’, known as a ‘grapheme’ and on and on it goes until one day we are able to hear and understand, say and understand, read and understand the word ‘cat’. Many different brain systems are working together in learning to read.

All of the above makes the assessment of reading a tricky piece of business! The assessor must discover not only what level of reading skills the child possesses (in percentile terms, not reading-age terms) but must also discover just where any breakdown or difficulty is occurring:

• Is it at the level of being able to discern phonemes (the letter sounds)?

• Is it at the level of deciphering the graphemes (the shape that represents each letter) and relating them to phonemes?

• Is it at the level of being able to retain in memory what has just been read?

• Is it at the level of understanding what has been retained in memory, known as ‘reading comprehension’?

Anything can go wrong at any stage of the process and the assessment of reading (and the same for mathematics), must take the entire process involved in mastering those particular academic skills into account.

When tests of reading or mathematics have been administered, they yield test scores, the same way that tests of intelligence yield scores. Let’s stick with the example of Patricia, whose Wechsler scores were discussed earlier. Let’s imagine that Patricia was given an academic test of reading, which broke down into several areas, each with its own score: 

• Ability to discern phonemes

• Ability to read single words

• Ability to remember what was read and recall it

• Ability to comprehend what was read and repeat it by saying what it was about


Again, the most useful scores that can be reported are standard scores and percentile scores, because they can be compared and contrasted easily with other tests, say psychological tests. Patricia’s scores on the test look like this:


Standard Score  


Phoneme Awareness 108    70
Word Reading 102 55
Remembering 98 45
Comprehension 62 1

We can compare these scores with other scores and quickly see that with her average intelligence, Patricia is able to discern phonemes, read single words and recall sentences within the average range. However, her ability to comprehend what she has read is well below average. When we look back at the intelligence test results, we notice that both verbal and nonverbal abstraction skills were quite poor. This helps us understand the reason for Patricia’s poor comprehension – she is unable to draw conclusions and make generalisations about the material she has read. It is her inability to think abstractly that makes these two things difficult/ impossible for her.

What is important to look for is any real difference between full-scale intelligence test scores (Wechsler) and achievement test scores (academic testing of reading or mathematics). We must always bear in mind that full-scale test scores do not always reflect the true intelligence. Analysis of the individual standard scores and sub-section scores tells an interesting story to the assessor. Relying solely on the percentile score just tells us where Patricia stands on a task in comparison to her same-age peers. But comparing  and contrasting the individual scores with one another tells a much more comprehensive story about the possible causes of her reading difficulties.

In conclusion, it is important to note that in order to make a clear decision about whether or not a special education condition is present, one must take into account both intelligence test scores and academic test scores. Failing to do so can lead to inappropriate placement into special education services or failing to provide special education when it is necessary to do so.

Assessment in special education must therefore always consist of at least two parts:

1. assessment of intelligence and cognitive skills (performed by the psychologist).

2. assessment of academic skills (performed by the psychologist and the special education teacher).

There may well be need for other types of assessment by other professionals in individual cases:

• A child or adolescent psychiatrist

• An occupational therapist

• Physiotherapist

• A speech and language therapist

Assessments must be individualised for the child and may take the form of any of the following methods:

Criterion-referenced Assessments

These are tests that include items that are directly related to what the child is supposed to learn. The goal is to obtain a description of the specific knowledge and skills the child can demonstrate.

Norm-Referenced Tests

A test or assessment designed to provide a measure of the child’s ability on a particular task, as compared to other children the same age, class and gender. 

Curriculum-based Assessments 

This is a way of monitoring a child’s performance through the existing subject content. The material used to assess the child’s skills is often taken directly from the course content itself.

Checklists and Rating Scales 

These are a form of criterion-referenced assessment. A teacher completes a series of questions, sometimes answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and the results are compared against those of children whom the test designer knows do not have learning difficulties.

Portfolio Assessments 

Portfolios are a systematic collection of a child’s work over a period of time used for the purpose of tracking progress in a particular content.

Language Sample Analysis 

Often used by speech and language therapists, this form of assessment is a simple record of what a child says. The sample is then analysed for errors in grammar or sentence construction, such as how the child changes a singular to a plural.

Functional Assessment

This is a way to assess a child’s behaviour. Looking at problem behaviour from this point of view, the assessor is trying to determine what the purpose of the behaviour is for the child, what function it serves. This information can then be used to modify the environment to correct the behaviour, or to use other strategies to help the child’s behaviour improve.

Play-based Assessments 

Play-based assessments are often used with young children or children with autistic spectrum disorders or those with general learning disabilities. The child is engaged in play and the assessor makes careful notes while observing the child’s play patterns.

Ecological Assessments

An ecological assessment looks at the environment in which the child is being educated and makes decisions about how appropriate it is for the particular child in question. Ecological assessment also focuses on the people in the learning environment, not just the environment itself. 

These approaches yield rich information about children, are especially important when assessing students who are from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds and therefore, are critical methods in the overall approach to assessment.


Observation is a useful method of assessment and can take many forms as follows:

• Teacher observation – teacher can observe a child and make careful notes on any area of development.

• Time-Sampling Recording – monitoring and tracking everything that happens over a given period of time.

• Duration Recording – documents the amount of time a child is engaged in a particular type of behaviour.

• Event Recording – recording a particular ’event’, such as a temper tantrum. Of course, the event can be a positive one as easily as it can be a negative one!

• Anecdotal Records – a written record of a specific event that catches the teacher’s attention in the classroom or on the yard.

• Interview Based Assessment – talking with, and listening to, the child. A written record is often kept and analysed or compared with another interview at a later time.

• Functional Behaviour Analysis – looks at the purpose of a child’s behaviour in a particular context. For example, the purpose of attention-seeking behaviour may be quite different when it occurs on the yard from when it occurs in the classroom. 

Let me stress again that tests alone will not give a comprehensive picture of how a child performs or what he or she knows or does not know.

Evaluators need to use a variety of tools and approaches to assess a child, including observing the child in different settings, to see how he or she functions in those environments. They must interview individuals who know the child to gain their insights, and must test the child to evaluate his or her competence in whatever skill areas appear affected by the suspected disability. In addition, they must pay attention to any areas of particular strength.

Parents of children with medical or mental health problems may also have assessment information from sources outside of the school. Such information would need to be considered in tandem with that from the school’s own evaluation team in making appropriate diagnoses, placement decisions and instructional plans.

A word of caution about observation

While observations will yield much useful information about the child and his or her environments, there are a number of errors that can occur during observations that distort or invalidate the information collected:

• The observer must record accurately, systematically, and without bias. If his or her general impression of the child influences how he or she rates that child, in regards to specific characteristics, the data will be misleading and inaccurate. This can be especially true if the child comes from a background that is different from the majority culture. In such cases, it is important that the observer has an understanding of, and a lack of bias regarding the student’s cultural or language group. Often, multiple observers are used to increase the reliability of the observational information collected.

• All observers should be fully trained in how to collect information using the specific method chosen (e.g., time-sampling using a checklist) and how to remain unobtrusive while observing and recording, so as not to influence the child’s behaviour.

• It is important to observe more than once, in a number of situations or locations, and at various times.

• Data must be integrated with information gathered through other assessment procedures. Decisions should not be made based upon a narrow range of observational samples. 

Additionally, it will be important for the multi-disciplinary team responsible for educational planning to take into account the following:

• Who will make the observation;

• Who or what will be observed;

• Where the observation will take place (observing a range of situations where the student operates is recommended);

• When the observation will take place (a number of observations atdifferent times is also important); and 

• How the observations will be recorded.

It is good practice for parents to ask specific questions about the type of assessment or observation that will be/was used to pinpoint a child’s level of performance on a task or behaviour. It is reasonable to ask the assessor how much practice they have in using the particular assessment method, how many assessments like this they have done, why they chose that particular method and how valid or reliable they think it is.