A Question About Processing Speed

A Question of Processing Speed- Cognitive Tasks

A fellow educator called me the other day to talk about a tenth grader whose scores on the Wechsler IQ test (WISC-IV) just didn't add up. He described the student as being a terrific young man who is verbal, curious, and social. Math was an area of strength, he was artistic, musical, and a fairly decent athlete; the kind of student who would add to the school community in many ways.

My colleague went on to say that on the WISC-IV the student’s  scores were:

Verbal Comprehension 115, Perceptual Reasoning 123, Working Memory 109, and Processing Speed 83.

He wanted to know what would make the Processing Speed score so low, and how at risk this young man would be in a competitive private school. The evaluation did not provide this information and he needed some clarification and advice.

Processing Speed on the WISC-IV, and now the WISC-V, is designed to measure how quickly one can complete simple timed cognitive tasks using pencil and paper. The two subtests require visual scanning, grapho-motor output (writing), speed, flexibility, attention and concentration among other things.

When you find a low Processing Speed score there are a number of factors to consider and questions to ask. They include but are not limited to:

1. What is the student’s tempo, is it sluggish and slow? Does the student move through life at a slower pace than others? Is this the way they are wired? If so, they are likely to have difficulty keeping up in an environment that is too fast paced.

2. Is the student a perfectionist, wanting everything to be perfect, making sure they make no mistakes and checking their work twice? If so, this can be addressed by teaching the student to take risks and to trust their instincts. Once they learn to let some things go they have the opportunity to complete work in a more timely fashion and with less angst.

3. Does the student have ADHD, which can result in waxing and waning attention, difficulty shifting and sustaining focus, daydreaming, and problems with sustained effort? A number of strategies can be employed to facilitate the student who has attentional weaknesses including medication and executive function and cognitive training.

4. Are grapho-motor weaknesses making writing difficult? Is manipulating a pencil a tedious and time consuming task? If so, there are ways to work around this. In addition to using a computer there are speech recognition programs such as Dragon Naturally Speaking that can be used to dictate answers to homework questions, a five-paragraph essay, or writing a novel.

5. Two other factors to consider are anxiety and depression, both of which can cause a student to perform more slowly than might otherwise be the case. Is the student filled with self-doubt, poor confidence, feelings of low esteem? These issues can be addressed through formal and informal counseling, exercise, involvement in activities and mindfulness training.

6. Motivation can certainly play a role in all aspects of an evaluation. If a student lacks interest or finds a task boring they may perform poorly. This factor needs to be teased apart more thoroughly as a lack of motivation for a given task is one thing, but for life in general it is another.

A well written psycho-educational evaluation should identify the primary causes of a low Processing Speed score. Based on that information, learning strategies designed to support processing speed weaknesses can be made. These recommendations can be used in an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) which serves to guide instruction. Bottom line, testing is more than just numbers and it is important to ask questions before labeling a student based on scores alone.

Caryl Frankenberger, Ed.M.