Prior test experience confounds longitudinal tracking of adolescent cognitive and motor development 

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Sullivan, E. V., Thompson, W. K., Brumback, T., Prouty, D., Tapert, S. F., Brown, S. A., … & Pfefferbaum, A. (2022). Prior test experience confounds longitudinal tracking of adolescent cognitive and motor development. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 22(1), 1-15.



Accurate measurement of trajectories in longitudinal studies, considered the gold standard method for tracking functional growth during adolescence, decline in aging, and change after head injury, is subject to confounding by testing experience. 


We measured change in cognitive and motor abilities over four test sessions (baseline and three annual assessments) in 154 male and 165 female participants (baseline age 12–21 years) from the National Consortium on Alcohol and NeuroDevelopment in Adolescence (NCANDA) study. At each of the four test sessions, these participants were given a test battery using computerized administration and traditional pencil and paper tests that yielded accuracy and speed measures for multiple component cognitive (Abstraction, Attention, Emotion, Episodic memory, Working memory, and General Ability) and motor (Ataxia and Speed) functions. The analysis aim was to dissociate neurodevelopment from testing experience by using an adaptation of the twice-minus-once tested method, which calculated the difference between longitudinal change (comprising developmental plus practice effects) and practice-free initial cross-sectional performance for each consecutive pairs of test sessions. Accordingly, the first set of analyses quantified the effects of learning (i.e., prior test experience) on accuracy and after speed domain scores. Then developmental effects were  determined for each domain for accuracy and speed having removed the measured learning effects. 


The greatest gains in performance occurred between the first and second sessions, especially in younger participants, regardless of sex, but practice gains continued to accrue thereafter for several functions. For all 8 accuracy composite scores, the developmental effect after accounting for learning was significant across age and was adequately described by linear fits. The learning-adjusted developmental effects for speed were adequately described by linear fits for Abstraction, Emotion, Episodic Memory, General Ability, and Motor scores, although a nonlinear fit was better for Attention, Working Memory, and Average Speed scores. 


Thus, what appeared as accelerated cognitive and motor development was, in most cases, attributable to learning. Recognition of the substantial influence of prior testing experience is critical for accurate characterization of normal development and for developing norms for clinical neuropsychological investigations of conditions affecting the brain. 

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