Choosing the right tools: Broadband vs. Narrowband Assessments

A school psychologist in a session with a young girl. The child is sharing information with the psychologist at a table next to a window.

Choosing the right tools: Broadband vs. Narrowband Assessments

Key Takeaways:

  • Broadband and narrowband assessments serve distinct purposes in evaluating students’ needs, strengths, and challenges.
  • When selecting assessment tools, school psychologists should consider the purpose of the evaluation, the student’s presenting challenges and strengths, and other contextual factors.
  • Integrating both broadband and narrowband assessments provides a more thorough understanding of a student’s current functioning. This comprehensive approach enhances accuracy in identification, informs tailored interventions, and supports appropriate educational accommodations.

For school psychologists, assessments play a pivotal role in understanding students’ needs, strengths, and challenges. Recent estimates suggest that school psychologists spend about half of their time in the schools conducting assessments to determine eligibility for special education services and then collaborating with the education team on developing the resulting individualized education plans (IEPs)1–4. Assessment tools, such as rating scales, can be broadly categorized as broadband or narrowband, depending on their scope and focus.

Broadband assessments are designed to provide a complete overview of concerns and disorders across academic, behavioral, emotional, or social domains. Narrowband measures are more targeted and focus on specific aspects of a student’s functioning, such as a particular behavior or challenge. Historically, narrowband assessments have been a staple, frequently used to evaluate specific areas of functioning3,5,6. However, test use and assessment practices of school psychologists in the United States have evolved over the past two decades. The main shift observed is the widespread adoption of broadband assessments, with 97% of school psychologists reporting using these tools in 20172. Improvements in broadband measures have likely fueled the shift. These improvements include the development of numerous broadband instruments measuring child and adolescent behavior problems, encompassing externalizing and internalizing behaviors, and including scales evaluating both adaptive and problem behavior.

Broadband assessments are also popular due to their efficiency in measuring various aspects of a student’s behavior across different contexts and informant perspectives, making them time- and cost-effective. Despite the widespread adoption of broadband assessments, narrowband assessments remain instrumental in evaluating specific areas of functioning alongside broadband scales.

While school psychologists offer a wide range of other services that support students, assessments are central to gathering comprehensive information about students, implementing evidence-based decision-making, and ensuring accountability across service delivery7,8. However, navigating the multitude of assessment options available can be daunting. Let’s demystify the process by exploring the differences between various assessments and recommending the most suitable assessment tools for different scenarios.

Broadband vs. Narrowband Assessments: Understanding the difference and when to use both

Each type of assessment brings its own set of strengths and limitations. Broadband assessments provide a comprehensive overview of a student’s functioning across multiple domains, increasing the likelihood of detecting comorbid disorders. Consider a scenario where a school psychologist conducts an initial assessment of a student with academic and behavioral concerns. In this case, a broadband assessment, such as the Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scales™ (Conners CBRS®), can comprehensively evaluate the student’s academic, social-emotional, and behavioral functioning. This holistic perspective allows school psychologists to develop thorough intervention plans that address the student’s diverse needs across multiple domains. However, broadband assessments may lack specificity.

Narrowband assessments, on the other hand, provide detailed insights into particular areas of concern, providing invaluable insights into targeted aspects of a student’s functioning. For example, when assessing Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms or depressive symptoms, narrowband assessments such as the Conners 4th Edition (Conners 4®) or the Children’s Depression Inventory 2nd Edition™ (CDI 2®) allow users such as school psychologists to hone in on particular symptoms or impairments. By pinpointing areas of difficulty with precision, narrowband assessments serve as essential tools for guiding targeted interventions and support strategies tailored to the unique needs of each student. However, narrowband assessments may overlook broader issues.

While broadband and narrowband assessments serve distinct purposes, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining broadband and narrowband measures can prove to be especially effective in providing a comprehensive overview of a student’s current level of functioning while also pinpointing specific areas in which a student may be having particular difficulty9,10. Instances of comorbidity, or co-occurrence, of mental health disorders especially underscore the importance of integrating both broadband and narrowband assessment into practice. Comorbidity of mental health conditions in school-aged children and adolescents is not uncommon11–13. For instance, approximately two-thirds of children with ADHD have comorbid conditions such as a specific learning disability, conduct disorder, anxiety, or depression14–16. Similarly, over 40% of children and adolescents with depression have one or more comorbid diagnoses17,18. Interventions that address multiple co-occurring problems are more likely to have a positive impact on students’ mental health and may disrupt the link between childhood psychopathology and psychiatric disorders in adulthood19.

In instances of comorbidity, integrating both broadband and narrowband measures allows for a more thorough assessment than either approach alone, ensuring that all relevant behaviors and challenges are identified. This approach enhances accuracy in identification and informs tailored support services, effective intervention strategies, and appropriate educational accommodations. Therefore, while each type of measure offers valuable insights independently, their combined use is essential in delivering comprehensive data-based insights that will allow an education team to design and implement an individualized plan that ultimately improves student outcomes.

Navigating Broadband and Narrowband Assessments in your evaluation

In the following case study, let’s examine how a school psychologist could use broadband and narrowband assessments.

Step 1: The initial referral

Jenny, a 10-year-old girl, is in the 5th grade. Her teacher has noticed that Jenny is struggling to pay attention in class and has not been learning at the same rate as her peers. Jenny’s parents have reported that they are seeing similar behavior at home. Several general education interventions have been tried without measurable success. The school support team suspects Jenny may have a disability and has requested an evaluation for special education services to investigate.

The assessment approach is based on the referral question, which will guide the school psychologist in evaluating for suspected disability. A multidisciplinary approach is essential in school settings given that independent challenges are uncommon, and comorbidities are often present.

Step 2: Information gathering  

After receiving a referral, the school psychologist begins by gathering information from multiple sources: the school’s support team, Jenny’s parents, her teachers, other school-based professionals, and Jenny herself. In Jenny’s case, the school nurse was asked to complete a health record review and meet with the family to discuss any recent changes that might be impacting her. Jenny was observed in the classroom, and both the occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist were consulted to explore potential contributing factors. The school psychologist also reviewed the results of general education interventions provided by the support team to understand the effectiveness of previous interventions, gaining valuable insights into Jenny’s specific needs and tailoring the assessment process accordingly.

Step 3: Deciding on an appropriate assessment

In addition to information gathering, best practice for an initial assessment typically involves beginning with a broadband assessment to check for potential comorbidities. Certain behaviors may manifest similarly but stem from different underlying causes. For example, when faced with two referrals concerning a child’s inattentiveness in both the classroom and at home, a school psychologist might administer the Conners CBRS, a broadband assessment, to pinpoint the underlying areas of concern related to the inattention.

In one scenario, the Conners CBRS report may reveal elevated scores on the ADHD Inattentive Symptom Scale, aligning with the initial concerns, while also indicating heightened scores on the depression and anxiety scales. This score profile could prompt the subsequent administration of narrowband measures such as the Conners 4 for attention challenges, the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children Second Edition™ (MASC 2™) for anxiety concerns, and the CDI 2 for depression concerns to validate and expand the findings from the initial assessment. In this scenario, challenges associated with depression can now inform intervention planning: is the student’s depressive symptomology causing attention issues, or vice versa?

In another scenario, inattention might not stem from ADHD as initially assumed but rather from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and associated communication deficits, detected with the Conners CBRS and subsequently validated with the Autism Spectrum Rating Scales™ (ASRS®). Despite the similar presentation of inattention, the underlying areas of concern—ASD, ADHD, or depression—vary, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive assessment using multiple measures. This approach provides valuable insights for tailoring targeted interventions to each child’s unique needs.

A broadband assessment may not always be necessary, especially after the initial assessment has been completed. For example, in the case of triennial assessments, where a student has been receiving ongoing services for a physical or emotional disability, and their performance and behavior are stable, the need for a comprehensive broadband assessment diminishes. By this point, the student’s functioning and progress have been well documented and monitored regularly as part of their IEP. In such cases, focusing solely on a narrowband assessment like the Conners 4 may be more appropriate if attention issues persist. Similarly, if depression concerns persist, re-administering the CDI 2 may provide more targeted insights. School psychologists can track progress, refine interventions, and adapt strategies to meet evolving needs with each assessment cycle.


Broadband and narrowband assessments play distinct but complementary roles in evaluating eligibility for special education and informing intervention. Each assessment type serves distinct purposes in the evaluation process. Currently, broadband assessments are the most widely used measures of adaptive and problematic behaviors in schools2. Despite time constraints faced by school psychologists, narrowband measures offer accuracy in identification and specificity in intervention that directly impact student outcomes. School psychologists should consider the purpose of the evaluation, the student’s presenting challenges and strengths, and other contextual factors when selecting assessment tools. School psychologists can obtain a comprehensive picture of a student’s current functioning by integrating broadband and narrowband assessments into practice, leading to more accurate assessment and personalized intervention recommendations than through either approach alone.

Have questions or want to learn more about any of the tools and solutions mentioned in this blog? Get in touch with our team.


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