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The quandary of diagnosing mathematical difficulties in a generally low performing population

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posted on 06.08.2021, 15:27 authored by Mariuche Rodrigues de Almeida Gomides, Isabella Starling-Alves, Giulia Moreira Paiva, Leidiane da Silva Caldeira, Ana Luíza Pedrosa Neves Aichinger, Maria Raquel Santos Carvalho, Julia BahnmuellerJulia Bahnmueller, Korbinian MoellerKorbinian Moeller, Júlia Beatriz Lopes-Silva, Vitor Geraldi Haase
Brazilian students’ mathematical achievement was repeatedly observed to fall below average levels of mathematical attainment in international comparison studies such as PISA. In this article, we argue that this general low level of mathematical attainment interferes with the diagnosis of developmental dyscalculia when the psychometric criteria is used: establishing of an arbitrary cut-off (e.g., performance < percentile 10) may lead to misleading diagnoses. Therefore, the present study set off to evaluate the performance of Brazilian school children on basic arithmetic operations. Seven hundred and six children from 3rd to 5th grades completed a calculation task assessing arithmetic fluency in addition, subtraction, and multiplication. In line with PISA results, children presented difficulties in all arithmetic operations investigated. Children performed better in addition than subtraction and multiplication, and 3rd and 4th graders were outperformed by 5th graders in all three operations. However, even after five years of formal schooling, less than half of 5th graders performed perfectly on simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication problems. Therefore, these data substantiate the argument that the sole use of a psychometric criterion might not be sensible to diagnose dyscalculia in the context of a generally low performing population, such as Brazilian primary school children. When the majority of children fail the task, it is hard to distinguish atypical from typical numerical development. As such, other diagnostic approaches, such as Response to Intervention, might be more suitable in such a context.


Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de Minas Gerais (FAPEMIG, APQ-02755-SHA, APQ-03289-10, APQ-02953-14, APQ-03642-12)

DFG funding (MO 2525/7-1)

CAPES (88882.381504/2019-01)

CAPES (DocPleno, 88881.128282/2016-01)

CNPq excellence in research fellowship (308157/2011-7, 308267/2014-1)

Brazilian National Research Council (Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa, CNPq, grant number 312068/2015-8)

Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa de Minas Gerais (FAPEMIG) APQ-01093-15, APQ-02003-15, APQ-01377-17)

PPP Joint Research (PROBRAL) (88887.143931/2017-00)



  • Science


  • Mathematics Education Centre

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Dementia & Neuropsychologia








Associação Neurologia Cognitiva e do Comportamento, Brazil


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This is an Open Access Article. It is published by Associação Neurologia Cognitiva e do Comportamento, Brazil under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported Licence (CC BY). Full details of this licence are available at:

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Dr Julia Bahnmuller. Deposit date: 3 May 2021