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Understanding Woodcock Johnson Assessment for Special Education

Updated on April 3, 2018
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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Special education is fueled by test results. The data collected from these tests may determine a student's eligibility and placement in a particular school environment. Due to the need for test data, one test has been singled out as being the most useful. The Woodcock-Johnson III test has become the educator's choice in measuring the academic abilities of a student with a specific learning disability. In part, it's because its data is easier and more reliable to interpret than other assessment tools.

The Woodcock-Johnson has been a mainstay in numerous special education programs throughout the country. The easel-like format comprises two parallel achievement batteries that allow the examiner to retest the same student within a short amount of time with less practice effect (Overton, 2008). The data often matches a student to his/her abilities in several categories of language and math.

The test falls under a particular category of tests known as the Norm-referenced test. They are used to measure academic achievement and are compared with the perceived norms of a person's knowledge at a particular age or grade level. The norm groups range from ages 2 to 90 years or older. The test answers will start off with basic skills and advance toward more complex, college and graduate school level questions.

Unlike most assessments, the Woodcock-Johnson (or WJ as it is known throughout the special education circles) doesn't test only a few components in language arts and math. There are various sections or sub-test within each category.

Language Arts Sections

Language arts sections comprises a wide assortment of battery tests. They are:

  • Letter-word Identification: In this sub-test, students are presented with a picture, letter or word and asked to identify it orally.
  • Reading Fluency: This timed sub-test consists of a statement or passage (sentence-length) for a student to read and determine if it is true or not true. It assesses how quickly the student reads the sentences, decipher its meaning and make a decision about the validity.
  • Story Recall: Using audio recording, the student listens to short stories and then tells the story to the examiner.
  • Understanding Directions: a picture and oral instructions are given by the examiner for the student to do such things as point to a certain part of the picture.
  • Spelling: to test the students spelling ability at an age/grade level.
  • Writing Fluency: Students are instructed to write sentences to describe a given picture.
  • Passage Comprehension: ability to comprehend a reading passage.
  • Writing samples: students construct age-appropriate sentences meeting specific grammatical criteria.
  • Story Recall - Delayed: Students are asked to recall stories from a previous subtest.

Originally from
Originally from

Math Section

Math has three sub-tests. They are:

  • Math fluency: timed subtest in which students complete problems of basic operations of addition, subtractions, multiplication, and division.
  • Calculation: students do problems which include number writing on the early items and range from addition to calculus operations.
  • Applied Problems: an oral test in which students solve word problems or story math problems.

Other Designated Sections

There is an extended battery of sub-tests included with the WJ. The sub-tests in this battery go into more specific areas of language and math such as Word Attack, Picture Vocabulary, Oral Comprehension, Editing, Reading Vocabulary, Quantitative Concepts, Academic Knowledge, Spelling of Sounds, Sound Awareness, and Punctuation and Capitalization.

Administering and understanding the results

The Woodcock-Johnson is often administered orally or through written responses. The students usually sit at a table opposite of the teacher. In between, the test booklet is propped up like an easel. One side contains the instructions, questions, or correct answers for the examiner to use. The other side supplies the pictures, stories, words or problems the student is to work on. The examiner will also have a document to record the student's response or to tally the correct answers or mistakes.

Not all the items in a sub-test will be given. Most examiners will stop the untimed tests after the student has missed five items in row. From there, the examiner can tally up the responses, get a raw score and gauge it on a scale that will show student's knowledge, in terms of grade and functional age level. This particular exam has a chart that matches the Age and grade equivalent with test score data.

The grade level or grade equivalent (listed on the results under a column labeled G.E.) used grade scores assigned to a mean raw score of a group during the norming process (Overton, 2008). This score indicates the grade level in which the student is operating at. Functional age equivalent (represented on the reports as A.E. and listed in a column under that abbreviation) are often matched with G.E. For example, if a student with a chronological age of 17 scores on the norm with 8.3 G.E. and a 13.10 A.E in Letter-Word Identification, he will be considered to have a knowledge base of an eight-grader at three months into school or be at the age equivalent of 13 years and 10 months old.

Woodcock-Johnson has been updated over the years. The updated version is known as Woodcock-Johnson IV or W-J IV. The test needs to update every so often (10-12 years). In part, it makes in relevant and more reflective of the norm groups.

It should be pointed out that assessments such as Woodcock-Johnson are not precise. They will have standard errors of measurements and reliability issues. Still, norm-reference scores are tending to be more reliable in measuring a student's current educational level. For that reason, and its easy-to-use data table and testing process, Woodcock-Johnson is very useful.

Extra: One Assessment Tool is not enough

By law enacted within Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA), students with special needs need to assessed every three years. The results are then presented before an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting known as a triennial.

Also, it is recommended ( but not always practiced) that,at least ,three assessments tools are used for these three-year periods. The Woodcock Johnson is often a popular choice. However, many districts have incorporated others such as WIAT. Also, some states use their own testing equipment in accordance to WIAT and/or WJ.

Another tool for assessments used or ones created by a school or district, as well those used for national education programs such as Read 180. This reading intervention program regularly assesses students reading levels. In numerous IEP meetings, the results were used to gage a student's skill level in reading and writing.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


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