The Intelligence Tests That Explained My Fs

When I Was 15, I Got a 39-Page Report On My Cognition. It Helped.

One chilly morning in December 1999, an elderly woman showed up in my kindergarten class at my elementary school and told my teacher I was needed for a private conference. My pulse quickened and my classmates stared. The lady took me to a dark office, handed me two Barbie dolls, and instructed me to play with them. I was too anxious to say anything to her, but I followed her instructions. I believe I had the dolls discuss a possible road trip up the West Coast.

Years later, I learned that my extreme shyness and classroom anxiety had worried my teachers enough to recommend I be tested for developmental problems. I suppose the lady with the dolls didn’t find anything too alarming—I didn’t rip the heads off the Barbies, and I managed to maintain some level of eye contact—but being selected for such a test was an early indicator that I was different from my classmates.

School was always a source of anxiety. There were good years (second grade, fourth grade) and rough years (third grade, fifth grade), but what stayed consistent was an unevenness in my academics. By the time I reached high school, I had left public school and was attending Waverly, a pleasant little hippie school in Pasadena. I’d made great friends and joined a club swim team, and I excelled in English and history. But I struggled in math and science, and I couldn’t learn Spanish to save my life.

Toward the end of my freshman year, my Spanish and math teachers approached my parents to share some concerns. They suspected my difficulties in their classes might be related to “pattern recognition problems,” and they suggested that I undergo some psycho-diagnostic evaluations.

A few months later, I found myself once again being evaluated in a dark room, in front of a computer with a small white dot flashing in the center.

Fifteen year-old Kelsey is a tenth grade student in high school. She is of Caucasian descent and is the only child of Linda and Augie Hess.

This was the introduction to a 39-page psychological report that eventually got written about me.

Kelsey’s primary language is English. Kelsey is five feet, six inches tall and her general health is reported to be “great.” Kelsey’s overall diet is good and she does not consume caffeinated beverages.

Putting together the report had been an elaborate—and, for my parents, expensive—process that lasted several months. There had been conferences with the doctor who had conducted the testing and my parents. There were consultations with my parents and teachers, and the doctor participated in several review sessions to make sure that everyone understood my transcripts. I had taken a cognitive test: the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (fourth edition). I also took the TOVA-A (auditory learning), the TOVA-V (visual learning), and (I’ll stick to acronyms here) the CPRS, the CTRS, the CWARS, the WRAML2, the VMI, the VMI: MC, the VMI: VP, the WIAT- II, the WJ III, the NDRT, the MMPI-A, the MACI, the DAP, the KFD, the HTP, and finally, the SC.

One of these tests required me to explain how synonyms are alike. Others made me define words, answer questions “based on social situations,” and partake in “verbal word puzzle games that examine verbal comprehension, analogical and general reasoning ability, verbal abstraction, and the ability to integrate and synthesize different types of information.”

Still more tests involved orally repeating a long series of numbers. (I failed miserably.) I also had to listen to a series of letters and numbers and deliver them backwards. (I failed even more miserably. “Sequencing” was soon discovered to be a weakness of mine.)

Kelsey was initially guarded as each testing session started, but tended to warm up as the testing progressed. By the end of the sessions she was able to maintain good eye contact with the examiner and generally sat with a relaxed posture.

The most unpleasant examinations were the TOVA tests. The first, a visual test, required me to be alone in front of a computer for hours on end. The room was cold and dark, and I had to click a button each time a white dot appeared in the middle of a blank, black screen—again, and again, and again. I was being tested for ADD and ADHD. The next day, back in the same cold room, this time with a sweater on, I donned headphones and clicked a button each time I heard a beep. I fell asleep a few times because the test was so eminently boring, which may have something to do with my subsequent diagnosis of a slight attention deficit.

Kelsey asked relevant questions as the testing progressed. Her thoughts were tightly organized and no delusions, obsessions, compulsions, or phobias were noted. Kelsey denied a history of past or present hallucinations. Kelsey is right handed. She seemed alert and oriented to all spheres (e.g. person, time, place, and situation). Her sensorium appeared intact, in that there was no evidence of obvious deficits in concentration or memory.

Reading through all those pages of test results and diagnoses in my report, which had been sent to us a couple of months after the final tests were done, I didn’t feel panicked, but I did feel overwhelmed. Not many of us get a cognitive biography in the mail.

The report revealed me to be more or less normal in a behavioral sense. But, regarding cognition, my Spanish and math teachers had been on to something. The WISC-IV tests showed that my working memory for sequencing letters and numbers was weak. When I say weak, I mean 9th-percentile weak. Ninety-one percent of people did better than I did. For “picture completion,” the results were even starker: first percentile. Ninety-nine percent of people are more proficient than I am at looking at an image and identifying what is missing.

I also have strengths. I learned that I am in the 91st percentile for story memory recognition. My “Standard Score for Broad Written Language” was 121, placing me in the 92nd percentile. For “Written Expression,” my score was 123, placing me in the 94th percentile. And, last but not least, there was “Writing Fluency.” For that, my standard score was 139. I am in the 99.6th percentile.

That number—99.6—became my ego-boost in my most vulnerable academic moments, the little statistic that gets me through ruthless biology teachers and failed Spanish tests.

Some people fear that cognitive and psychological tests are limiting, that they are biased or unfair, or that they prevent people from aspiring to greater things. For me, they offered peace of mind.

For many years, I’d felt discouraged. For every hour of studying I’d spent several more feeling disappointed in myself. I’d failed classes. I’d had to repeat Spanish again and again. I found it so hard to stay motivated to pay attention in certain classes that teachers were convinced I was simply slacking off.

With the report in hand, I understood myself better. And while my grades in weak subjects didn’t improve, I started, for the first time in my life, to cut myself some slack. I would work hard, but I didn’t have to be the student with the 4.0 average or the highest grade on the pop quizzes. I now understood that my academic weaknesses and successes were connected to something more substantial than my work habits.

I focused on working with what I had. To try to offset my weak grades, I focused on getting good internships—a lot of them. I made sure to build good relationships with teachers, so that even if they had to give me a C, they might still acknowledge my efforts.

That doesn’t mean I avoided setbacks. Some teachers were unsympathetic. My first choice of college deferred my application from early action to regular decision, then, in May, to a waitlist, and then, in June, rejected me. I was told my grades were the deciding factor.

And then you move on. While I’d agonized over whether I’d get into my first-choice school, another door quietly opened: I got accepted into the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. The math and science requirements wouldn’t be too severe, and I could finally concentrate on my strengths in writing while attending a premier journalism school.

I started here just a few weeks ago. I’ve become an anchor on my school’s radio station news show and a writer for one of its websites. I’m starting up a chapter of a political organization with a friend. Above all, I’m savoring the excitement of starting on the rest of my life. When I need encouragement, I know that I can look back at that 39-page report on me in high school and remind myself that we all have our strengths and our weaknesses. And I’ve got the numbers to prove it.

Kelsey Hess is a former Zócalo Public Square intern and a first-year student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Kathryn Bowers.
*Photo courtesy of Caitlin Regan.
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