Researchers Highlight Pitfalls of Cognitive Assessment in Schools

Historical, current, and potential future complexities of cognitive assessment; a longstanding, controversial fixture in schools throughout the United States.


A team of researchers in school psychology made up of Ryan J. McGill of William and Mary University, Stefan Dombrowski of Rider University, and Gary Canivez of Eastern Illinois University conducted a review of the history and empirical examination of cognitive assessment in schools. Cognitive assessment by school psychologists has long been fraught with controversy, but past reviews highlighting concerns surrounding theoretical and methodological concerns are no longer current. McGill, Dombrowski, and Canivez‚Äôs review, published in the Journal of School Psychology, sheds light on some of the same concerns highlighted over two decades ago, indicating that ‚Äúreliability, validity, diagnostic utility, and treatment utility [cognitive profile analysis procedures] remains less than compelling.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúResearchers have long debated how cognitive measures should be interpreted in clinical practice with some questioning whether they should be used at all,‚ÄĚ they write. ‚ÄúFurther complicating the matter are the numerous interpretive systems, heuristics, and complex software programs [‚Ķ], that are available for practitioners to use; many of which encourage users to engage in some variant of cognitive profile analysis (i.e., making inferences about strengths and weaknesses observed in an individual’s profile of scores).‚ÄĚ

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Cognitive assessments are often conducted by school psychologists in the context of psychoeducational evaluations and are intended to inform classification and treatment trajectories for students. Psychoeducational evaluations may occur when new academic, social, emotional, or behavior concerns occur and are completed on a triennial basis for students deemed eligible for services outside of the general education curriculum. Although cognitive profiles reflected in general, composite, and subtest scores reflect features of a student’s thought process, the use of these data in practical decision making for school-based supports for students has been heavily debated.

In some US states, cognitive assessments have been formally eliminated from the test battery required to make special education and counseling determinations. Patterns of disproportionality in disability determinations reflected an overidentification of students of color for special education services, cultural biases in popular cognitive assessments, and mixed evidence for the reliability and validity of popular assessment procedures have prompted alternative approaches in some districts, but not all.

According to one survey referenced by McGill, Dombrowski, and Canivez, 49% of school psychologists surveyed indicated using composite-level analysis (examining dimensions of intelligence indicated through cognitive assessment) in clinical decision making. Despite a substantive review by Marley Watkins in 2000 that drew attention to the limitations of cognitive assessment in schools, cognitive assessment maintains a major role in the training and professional work of school psychologists.

Determinations made by school psychologists predominately inform in-school supports and accommodations. However, labels and recommendations issued by school psychologists may have a lasting impact that transcends school. Thus, precision, care, and innovation in assessment procedures are imperative.

The authors begin their review by outlining the critical works put forth in the nineties that revealed questionable psychometric properties of intelligence tests and emphasized concerns surrounding the application of cognitive assessment in schools. Findings from these articles were also synthesized in Watkins’ seminal review. A combination of new and longstanding assessment procedures (e.g., cross-battery assessment, ipsative assessment, levels-of-analysis approach, and X-BASS) applied within the past two decades paved the way for the current, updated examination.

Although strengths are touted in the manuals that accompany popular cognitive assessments applied in schools, McGill, Dombrowski, and Canivez draw attention to the poor reliability of within-individual subtest and composite performance over time demonstrated by many intelligence tests. One student may receive vastly different results in one cognitive domain at one timepoint than they would in a different room, with a different examiner, three years later upon reevaluation.

Alan Kaufman (known his work in cognitive assessment) and other big-names have defended the utility of cognitive assessments in schools, arguing that intelligence tests should never be administered or interpreted in the absence of other evaluation components and that they are an important piece of a larger puzzle. However, empirical evidence for this oft-repeated argument is limited. The question remains; are cognitive assessment results necessary in the process of establishing a comprehensive snapshot of a student’s capabilities and needs in a psychoeducational evaluation? Authors of the current review indicate that perhaps they are not.

‚ÄúPut simply, most people with cognitive weaknesses are able to get through school just fine and most people with academic difficulties do not have a learning disorder,‚ÄĚ they write. ‚ÄúAlthough it is frequently claimed in the professional and commercial literature that use of profile analytic methods such as PSW may be useful for diagnosis and treatment planning for individuals with academic weaknesses, a countering body of literature has emerged over the last five years documenting a host of psychometric and conceptual concerns about these methods.‚ÄĚ

McGill, Dombrowski, and Canivez’s results echo those achieved approximately twenty years ago, yet cognitive assessment continues to play a major role in special education and counseling determinations made in schools. There has been a recent push to ensure that research and training better align in the field of school psychology, and with regard to cognitive assessment, this could mean a reduction in the administration of cognitive assessment in schools.



Mcgill, R. J., Dombrowski, S. C., & Canivez, G. L. (2018). Cognitive profile analysis in school psychology: History, issues, and continued concerns. Journal of School Psychology, 71, 108-121. (Link)


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion‚ÄĒbroadly speaking‚ÄĒof psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Sadie Cathcart
MIA Research News Team: Sadie Cathcart is a doctoral student and researcher within the Counseling and School Psychology program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Sadie belongs to the school psychology track, and her research interests include the psychosocial implications of chronic illness in childhood, relationships between health and educational opportunities, and creative approaches to boosting student and family engagement in learning.


  1. I know from personal experience that school testing is greatly flawed, in part because our “mental health professionals” have been profiteering off of denying child abuse on a massive societal scale, likely largely because they can’t bill insurance companies for helping child abuse survivors.

    My child went from a private school for gifted children, that I eventually learned had a child molester on their school board, to a public school in first grade. My child had tested as gifted to get into the private school when he was three. But since the private school had a child rapist working out of that school, my child had reverted to being in remedial reading by the time he entered the public school in first grade, due to being abused.

    My family was attacked by a bunch of pedophilia covering up “mental health professionals,” doctors, and teachers, who denied and denounced my concerns of the possible abuse of my child. I dealt with 14 attempted murders, all via various forms of anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings, to cover up the abuse of my child, and medical evidence of a “bad fix” on a broken bone of mine, at which my PCP’s husband had been the “attending physician,” I eventually learned from medical records.

    Finally, some decent nurses handed over the medical evidence of the abuse of my child, and kicked my PCP and her husband out of their practice. This terrified the private school, who did quickly announce they were shutting that school down forever. Ironically, that school shut it’s doors on 6.6.06.

    I asked a psychiatrist how to best help my child, once the medical evidence of the abuse had been handed over. Rather than reporting the child abuse, as that psychiatrist even mentioned in his medical records he was legally required to do, he claimed that psychiatrically poisoning my child was how to best help my child. That’s when one runs away from the insane and psychopathic psychiatrist.

    By eighth grade my child largely healed from the child abuse, and surprised the school social worker, by getting 100% on his state standardized tests. She called me, not to congratulate me. But instead the insane school social worker wildly proclaimed, “you keep your child up late nights studying and are pushing him too hard.”

    I told her I was a “mean mom” who had my children in bed by 9:00 every night. I told her my son rarely had homework, and I hadn’t done homework with my son since 5th grade. I had handed over helping my son with homework to my husband in fifth grade, because my son had been refusing to memorize his math facts.

    My husband and son were forced to ask me to help them with some math by seventh grade. I answered their question in a New York second, which shocked my son. He asked me how I knew the answer so quickly. I told him it was because I knew my math facts. My son finally decided he didn’t want to be dumber than his mother, so he finally memorized his math facts.

    After the school social worker should theoretically have garnered some insight into reality. I then had a parent teacher conference, where all my child’s teachers attacked me with the social worker’s delusional belief system. I was forced to explain that high intelligence can be a genetically inherited trait, and went through my family history of people with high IQs, including the fact that I had just been given an IQ test by a new employer, and had only missed one on the IQ test.

    Finally, the science teacher ended the insane attack. We went down to the principal’s office where I was apologized to, and told that I’d need to find a different school for my child for high school, because our school district was “not equipped to deal with the most intelligent children.”

    Absolutely, children can perform differently on cognitive assessment tests in schools. A child can test as gifted at the age of three. He can test as needing remedial reading, after child abuse, in first grade. And he can heal, because a mother got her child away from the rapists fairly quickly, and kept her child away from the mass drugging “mental health professionals.” Resulting in a child getting 100% on his state standardized tests by eighth grade, then going on to graduate as the valedictorian of his high school class. Then he graduated Phi Beta Kappa (with highest honors) from university, while also winning a psychology award.

    Pigeonholing children, based upon how a child tested at one particular point in time, is highly unwise for the school psychologists and social workers to do. Especially since the number one actual function of our “mental health professionals” both historically and today – according to their own medical literature – is ignoring, denying, and covering up our society’s apparently massive in scope child abuse and human trafficking problems.

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  2. I agree. I once talked to a teacher who said she never read any reports about students passed onto her by former teachers. I asked her why. She explained that whether these reports are accurate or not is up for debate, first of all. Secondly, should she read them, this would cause her to view us with bias, with pre-formed assumptions.

    I never realized quite how valuable this commentary was until I left the MH system. I recall I put a bit of this “passing down” tendency by teachers in my memoir, but it shows up only briefly. I entered a classroom in the 9th grade, my first day of high school. Immediately, the teacher said, as she read my name on the attendance list, “Oh, I hear you are sometimes late for class because you stay behind at the last class talking to the teachers!”

    This she said right in front of the entire class. The kids burst out laughing. This was not a good way for me to start off 9th grade, sadly.

    While it was true that in 8th grade I enjoyed lengthy, extracurricular discussions with my teachers, what was not passed on was the deep, intellectual content of these discussions.

    I learned a lot from my junior high social studies teacher, Mr Egbert, who taught me all sorts of stuff about social theories, rebellion, and the importance of being my own person. He explained all this in terms of political theory. Mr Egbert inspired me, more than any other teacher. That was sadly left out of the narrative. What got put there instead? “Attention-seeking.”

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