An “average” score can mask essential facts

There’s a short Intelligence subtest called “Digit Span”.  A string of digits is dictated to examinees and they must repeat the string in the same order as the original string. After an upper level is reached (usually two strings in a row), digit strings are repeated backward by examinees. The resulting score purportedly measures something like “attention span”.  And if this score falls bewtween the 25th and 75th percentiles, it is called “average”.

Joan, for example, got a Digit Span score at the 63rd percentile. She was average…But not so fast. Consider HOW she handled the task.

First, while listening to the “digits forward” series, she stared directly at the examiner, “tracked” the numbers by touching her fingers for each digit said and responded only after she had subvocally repeated the string to herself several times. She accurately recalled enough strings to score in the superior range (the 90th percentile).

BUT, when she had to repeat digits in reverse, her performance dropped off dramatically, so much so that her “digits reverse” score fell to the deficit range (10th percentile). Moreover, she labored much more intensively in the reverse conditions, despite lots of subvocalizing, rarely able to keep the digits in order, even the few she could recall.

Even taking into account that” digits reverse” is more difficult, Joan’s very inconsistent behavior strongly suggests that some underlying “information-processing” system is erratic and unreliable.

BUT, since her final “Digit Span” subtest score reflected the combined forward and reverse scores, she turned out to have an “average” score.  As such, any possibility of an “attention” deficit was effectively eliminated. She was described as “of  average attention”,  the 50th percentile

In fact, Joan’s teachers and parents had reported quite a few attention-related problems. But her “average” Digit Span score eliminated Attention-Disorder as a possible cause.  Indeed, the person testing Joan  concluded that whatever academic problems she was having were from “emotional” conflicts. And she was sent off to therapy.

Yes, “average” can conceal real problems and deficit. The term can also conceal “gifts” as I’ll explain in my next report.


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