What is a cognitive assessment and what does it measure?

Cognitive assessments are standardized tests used to evaluate a variety of cognitive processes such as language, problem-solving, and reasoning. These assessments help clinicians understand a child’s developmental level. They are typically adjusted for age to include developmentally-appropriate activities.

These tests are an important component of diagnostic evaluations because they can help determine whether a child is facing difficulties because of developmental delays, or they may point to another reason. There are three types of cognitive assessments that are commonly used in a diagnostic evaluation:

Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MULLEN): This test is used to measure motor skills, visual reception, and language ability. Specific skills evaluated include:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Visual memory
  • Understanding spoken language
  • Using speech to express ideas

Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-IV): The WPPSI test helps assess cognitive progress in areas including language, picture concepts, and information processing. It is often referred to as an intelligence test. However, rather than test grade-level knowledge, it examines thinking and processing skills. The WPPSI consists of various subtests that measure the following:

  • Visual-spatial processing
  • Conceptual thinking
  • Visual discrimination
  • Working memory
  • Comprehension

Leiter International Performance Scale (Leiter): The Leiter is different from the Mullen and WPPSI in that it is a non-verbal test it does not rely on the use of language. During this assessment, a child typically responds to patterns and illustrations with manipulatives, which are small objects such as blocks or foam shapes. Skills and behavior observed in the Leiter include:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Organization
  • Sensory Reactivity

Clinicians decide which cognitive assessments are most appropriate on a case by case basis. Below is a general overview of the test format:

  • Test time depends on the age and abilities of the child. On average, it can take between 30 minutes and 1 hour per test. In general, the younger the child, the shorter the testing time required.
  • Parents are typically not present for the test. This allows clinicians to better assess a child’s abilities independent of input or prompting from parents.
  • Cognitive assessments are meant to be engaging. During the test, children perform a variety of game-like activities that are developmentally appropriate for their age.

Parents often ask how to prepare their child for a cognitive assessment. It may be a good idea to explain to your child that they will be participating in different activities and that it is important to follow all directions. The clinician will do their best to make sure that your child is as comfortable as possible during the evaluation.