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Cognitive Test Takers and Score Variation

A cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, has demonstrated that giving a test only once isnt enough to get a clear picture of someones mental functioning. It appears that repeating tests over a short period may give a more accurate range of scores, improving diagnostic workups.

Salthouse gave 16 common cognitive and neuropsychological tests to evenly divided participants (90 in the first, 1600 in the second) into groups of ages 18-39, 50-59 and 60-97 years old. In both studies, the variation between someones scores on the same test given three times over two weeks was as big as the variation between the scores of people in different age groups.

Its as if on the same test, someone acted like a 20-year-old on a Monday, a 45-year-old the following Friday, and a 32-year-old the following Wednesday. This major inconsistency raises questions about the worth of single, one-time test scores.

I dont think many people would have expected that the variability would be this large, and apparent in a wide variety of cognitive tests not simply tests of speed or alertness, says Salthouse.

Psychologists frequently use tests of vocabulary, word recall, spatial relations, pattern comparison and the like to understand normal function and diagnose impairment. Experts use the scores to differentiate between diagnoses, detect changes in level of functioning or to give a diagnosis in the first place. Where scores fall relative to standardized cutoffs affects treatment, insurance, education plans and more.

Yet the apparent fuzziness of one-time assessments could make it hard to tell whether someone is truly impaired, or truly improving or worsening, instead of showing normal short-term fluctuation.

Accordingly, Salthouse has come to believe that everyone has a range of typical performances, a one-person bell curve. Any given test will net a performance somewhere along that curve, as when a hitters good and b
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