Cognitive Assessment, Psychometrics, R

How common is it to have no academic weaknesses?

I’m afraid that the question posed by the title does not have a single answer. It depends on how we define and measure academic performance.

Let’s sidestep some difficult questions about what exactly an “academic deficit” is and for the sake of convenience pretend that it is a score at least 1 standard deviation below the mean on a well normed test administered by a competent psychologist with good clinical skills.

Suppose that we start with the 9 core WJ III achievement tests (the answers will not be all that different with the new WJ IV):

SkillsLetter-Word IdentificationSpellingCalculation
ApplicationsPassage ComprehensionWriting SamplesApplied Problems
FluencyReading FluencyWriting FluencyMath Fluency

What is the percentage of the population that does not have any score below 85? If we can assume that the scores are multivariate normal, the answer can be found using data simulation or via the cumulative density function of the multivariate normal distribution. I gave examples of both methods in the previous post. If we use the correlation matrix for the 6 to 9 age group of the WJ III NU, about 47% of the population has no academic scores below 85.

Using the same methods we can estimate what percent of the population has no academic scores below various thresholds. Subtracting these numbers from 100%, we can see that fairly large proportions have at least one low score.

Threshold% with no scores below the threshold% with at least one score below the threshold

What proportion of people with average cognitive scores have no academic weaknesses?

The numbers in the table above include people with very low cognitive ability. It would be more informative if we could control for a person’s measured cognitive abilities.

Suppose that an individual has index scores of exactly 100 for all 14 subtests that are used to calculate the WJ III GIA Extended. We can calculate the means and the covariance matrix of the achievement tests for all people with this particular cognitive profile. We will make use of the conditional multivariate normal distribution. As explained here (or here), we partition the academic tests (\mathbf{X}_1) and the cognitive predictor tests (\mathbf{X}_2) like so:

\begin{pmatrix}\mathbf{X}_1 \\ \mathbf{X}_2 \end{pmatrix}\sim\mathcal{N}\left(\begin{pmatrix}\boldsymbol{\mu}_1 \\ \boldsymbol{\mu}_2\end{pmatrix},\begin{pmatrix}\mathbf{\Sigma}_{11} & \mathbf{\Sigma}_{12} \\ \mathbf{\Sigma}_{21} & \mathbf{\Sigma}_{22}\end{pmatrix}\right)

  • \boldsymbol{\mu}_1 and \boldsymbol{\mu}_2 are the mean vectors for the academic and cognitive variables, respectively.
  • \mathbf{\Sigma}_{11} and \mathbf{\Sigma}_{22} are the covariances matrices of academic and cognitive variables, respectively.
  • \mathbf{\Sigma}_{12} is the matrix of covariances between the academic and cognitive variables.

If the cognitive variables have the vector of particular values \mathbf{x}_2, then the conditional mean vector of the academic variables (\boldsymbol{\mu}_{1|2}) is:


The conditional covariance matrix:

If we can assume multivariate normality, we can use these equations, to estimate the proportion of people with no scores below any threshold on any set of scores conditioned on any set of predictor scores. In this example, about 51% of people with scores of exactly 100 on all 14 cognitive predictors have no scores below 85 on the 9 academic tests. About 96% of people with this cognitive profile have no scores below 70.

Because there is an extremely large number of possible cognitive profiles, I cannot show what would happen with all of them. Instead, I will show what happens with all of the perfectly flat profiles from all 14 cognitive scores equal to 70 to all 14 cognitive scores equal to 130.

What proportion of people with flat WJ III cognitive profiles equal to 70 to 130 have no WJ III academic scores below 85
What proportion of people with flat WJ III cognitive profiles equal to 70 to 130 have no WJ III academic scores below 85

Here is what happens with the same procedure when the threshold is 70 for the academic scores:

What proportion of people with flat WJ III cognitive profiles equal to 70 to 130 have no WJ III academic scores below 70
What proportion of people with flat WJ III cognitive profiles equal to 70 to 130 have no WJ III academic scores below 70

Here is the R code I used to perform the calculations. You can adapt it to other situations fairly easily (different tests, thresholds, and profiles).

WJ <- matrix(c(
  1,0.49,0.31,0.46,0.57,0.28,0.37,0.77,0.36,0.15,0.24,0.49,0.25,0.39,0.61,0.6,0.53,0.53,0.5,0.41,0.43,0.57,0.28, #Verbal Comprehension
  0.49,1,0.27,0.32,0.47,0.26,0.32,0.42,0.25,0.21,0.2,0.41,0.21,0.28,0.38,0.43,0.31,0.36,0.33,0.25,0.29,0.4,0.18, #Visual-Auditory Learning
  0.31,0.27,1,0.25,0.33,0.18,0.21,0.28,0.13,0.16,0.1,0.33,0.13,0.17,0.25,0.22,0.18,0.21,0.19,0.13,0.25,0.31,0.11, #Spatial Relations
  0.46,0.32,0.25,1,0.36,0.17,0.26,0.44,0.19,0.13,0.26,0.31,0.18,0.36,0.4,0.36,0.32,0.29,0.31,0.27,0.22,0.33,0.2, #Sound Blending
  0.57,0.47,0.33,0.36,1,0.29,0.37,0.49,0.28,0.16,0.23,0.57,0.24,0.35,0.4,0.44,0.36,0.38,0.4,0.34,0.39,0.53,0.27, #Concept Formation
  0.28,0.26,0.18,0.17,0.29,1,0.35,0.25,0.36,0.17,0.27,0.29,0.53,0.22,0.37,0.32,0.52,0.42,0.32,0.49,0.42,0.37,0.61, #Visual Matching
  0.37,0.32,0.21,0.26,0.37,0.35,1,0.3,0.24,0.13,0.22,0.33,0.21,0.35,0.39,0.34,0.38,0.38,0.36,0.33,0.38,0.43,0.36, #Numbers Reversed
  0.77,0.42,0.28,0.44,0.49,0.25,0.3,1,0.37,0.15,0.23,0.43,0.23,0.37,0.56,0.55,0.51,0.47,0.47,0.39,0.36,0.51,0.26, #General Information
  0.36,0.25,0.13,0.19,0.28,0.36,0.24,0.37,1,0.1,0.22,0.21,0.38,0.26,0.26,0.33,0.4,0.28,0.27,0.39,0.21,0.25,0.32, #Retrieval Fluency
  0.15,0.21,0.16,0.13,0.16,0.17,0.13,0.15,0.1,1,0.06,0.16,0.17,0.09,0.11,0.09,0.13,0.1,0.12,0.13,0.07,0.12,0.07, #Picture Recognition
  0.24,0.2,0.1,0.26,0.23,0.27,0.22,0.23,0.22,0.06,1,0.22,0.35,0.2,0.16,0.22,0.25,0.21,0.19,0.26,0.17,0.19,0.21, #Auditory Attention
  0.49,0.41,0.33,0.31,0.57,0.29,0.33,0.43,0.21,0.16,0.22,1,0.2,0.3,0.33,0.38,0.29,0.31,0.3,0.25,0.42,0.47,0.25, #Analysis-Synthesis
  0.25,0.21,0.13,0.18,0.24,0.53,0.21,0.23,0.38,0.17,0.35,0.2,1,0.15,0.19,0.22,0.37,0.21,0.2,0.4,0.23,0.19,0.37, #Decision Speed
  0.39,0.28,0.17,0.36,0.35,0.22,0.35,0.37,0.26,0.09,0.2,0.3,0.15,1,0.39,0.36,0.32,0.3,0.3,0.3,0.25,0.33,0.23, #Memory for Words
  0.61,0.38,0.25,0.4,0.4,0.37,0.39,0.56,0.26,0.11,0.16,0.33,0.19,0.39,1,0.58,0.59,0.64,0.5,0.48,0.46,0.52,0.42, #Letter-Word Identification
  0.6,0.43,0.22,0.36,0.44,0.32,0.34,0.55,0.33,0.09,0.22,0.38,0.22,0.36,0.58,1,0.52,0.52,0.47,0.42,0.43,0.49,0.36, #Passage Comprehension
  0.53,0.31,0.18,0.32,0.36,0.52,0.38,0.51,0.4,0.13,0.25,0.29,0.37,0.32,0.59,0.52,1,0.58,0.48,0.65,0.42,0.43,0.59, #Reading Fluency
  0.53,0.36,0.21,0.29,0.38,0.42,0.38,0.47,0.28,0.1,0.21,0.31,0.21,0.3,0.64,0.52,0.58,1,0.5,0.49,0.46,0.47,0.49, #Spelling
  0.5,0.33,0.19,0.31,0.4,0.32,0.36,0.47,0.27,0.12,0.19,0.3,0.2,0.3,0.5,0.47,0.48,0.5,1,0.44,0.41,0.46,0.36, #Writing Samples
  0.41,0.25,0.13,0.27,0.34,0.49,0.33,0.39,0.39,0.13,0.26,0.25,0.4,0.3,0.48,0.42,0.65,0.49,0.44,1,0.38,0.37,0.55, #Writing Fluency
  0.43,0.29,0.25,0.22,0.39,0.42,0.38,0.36,0.21,0.07,0.17,0.42,0.23,0.25,0.46,0.43,0.42,0.46,0.41,0.38,1,0.57,0.51, #Calculation
  0.57,0.4,0.31,0.33,0.53,0.37,0.43,0.51,0.25,0.12,0.19,0.47,0.19,0.33,0.52,0.49,0.43,0.47,0.46,0.37,0.57,1,0.46, #Applied Problems
  0.28,0.18,0.11,0.2,0.27,0.61,0.36,0.26,0.32,0.07,0.21,0.25,0.37,0.23,0.42,0.36,0.59,0.49,0.36,0.55,0.51,0.46,1), nrow= 23, byrow=TRUE) #Math Fluency
WJNames <- c("Verbal Comprehension", "Visual-Auditory Learning", "Spatial Relations", "Sound Blending", "Concept Formation", "Visual Matching", "Numbers Reversed", "General Information", "Retrieval Fluency", "Picture Recognition", "Auditory Attention", "Analysis-Synthesis", "Decision Speed", "Memory for Words", "Letter-Word Identification", "Passage Comprehension", "Reading Fluency", "Spelling", "Writing Samples", "Writing Fluency", "Calculation", "Applied Problems", "Math Fluency")
rownames(WJ) <- colnames(WJ) <- WJNames

#Number of tests

#Means and standard deviations of tests

#Covariance matrix

#Vector identifying predictors (WJ Cog)

#Threshold for low scores

#Proportion of population who have no scores below the threshold

#Predictor test scores for an individual

#Condition means and covariance matrix
condMu<-c(mu[-p] + sigma[-p,p] %*% solve(sigma[p,p]) %*% (x-mu[p]))
condSigma<-sigma[-p,-p] - sigma[-p,p] %*% solve(sigma[p,p]) %*% sigma[p,-p]

#Proportion of people with the same predictor scores as this individual who have no scores below the threshold

Cognitive Assessment, Psychometrics, Statistics

How unusual is it to have multiple scores below a threshold?

In psychological assessment, it is common to specify a threshold at which a score is considered unusual (e.g., 2 standard deviations above or below the mean). If we can assume that the scores are roughly normal, it is easy to estimate the proportion of people with scores below the threshold we have set. If the threshold is 2 standard deviations below the mean, then the Excel function NORMSDIST will tell us the answer:



In R, the pnorm function gives the same answer:


How unusual is it to have multiple scores below the threshold? The answer depends on how correlated the scores are. If we can assume that the scores are multivariate normal, Crawford and colleagues (2007) show us how to obtain reasonable estimates using simulated data. Here is a script in R that depends on the mvtnorm package. Suppose that the 10 subtests of the WAIS-IV have correlations as depicted below. Because the subtests have a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 3, the scores are unusually low if 4 or lower.

#WAIS-IV subtest names
WAISSubtests <- c("BD", "SI", "DS", "MR", "VO", "AR", "SS", "VP", "IN", "CD")

# WAIS-IV correlations
WAISCor <- rbind(
  c(1.00,0.49,0.45,0.54,0.45,0.50,0.41,0.64,0.44,0.40), #BD
  c(0.49,1.00,0.48,0.51,0.74,0.54,0.35,0.44,0.64,0.41), #SI
  c(0.45,0.48,1.00,0.47,0.50,0.60,0.40,0.40,0.43,0.45), #DS
  c(0.54,0.51,0.47,1.00,0.51,0.52,0.39,0.53,0.49,0.45), #MR
  c(0.45,0.74,0.50,0.51,1.00,0.57,0.34,0.42,0.73,0.41), #VO
  c(0.50,0.54,0.60,0.52,0.57,1.00,0.37,0.48,0.57,0.43), #AR
  c(0.41,0.35,0.40,0.39,0.34,0.37,1.00,0.38,0.34,0.65), #SS
  c(0.64,0.44,0.40,0.53,0.42,0.48,0.38,1.00,0.43,0.37), #VP
  c(0.44,0.64,0.43,0.49,0.73,0.57,0.34,0.43,1.00,0.34), #IN
  c(0.40,0.41,0.45,0.45,0.41,0.43,0.65,0.37,0.34,1.00)) #CD
rownames(WAISCor) <- colnames(WAISCor) <- WAISSubtests


#Standard deviations

#Covariance Matrix

#Sample size

#Load mvtnorm package

#Make simulated data
#To make this more realistic, you can round all scores to the nearest integer (d<-round(d))

#Threshold for abnormality

#Which scores are less than or equal to threshold
Abnormal<- d<=Threshold

#Number of scores less than or equal to threshold

#Frequency distribution table

    xlab="Number of WAIS-IV subtest scores less than or equal to 4",

The code produces this graph:
Abnormal Scores Simulation

Using the multivariate normal distribution

The simulation method works very well, especially if the sample size is very large. An alternate method that gives more precise numbers is to estimate how much of the multivariate normal distribution is within certain bounds. That is, we find all of the regions of the multivariate normal distribution in which one and only one test is below a threshold and then add up all the probabilities. The process is repeated to find all regions in which two and only two tests are below a threshold. Repeat the process, with 3 tests, 4 tests, and so on. This is tedious to do by hand but only takes a few lines of code do automatically.

  for (n in 1:k){
    for (i in 1:ncombos){

     xlab=bquote("Number of scores less than or equal to " * .(Threshold)),

Using this method, the results are nearly the same but slightly more accurate. If the number of tests is large, the code can take a long time to run.

Abnormal Scores Direct Method