Abstract Background Modeling latent variables such as physical disability is challenging since its measurement is performed through proxies. This poses significant methodological challenges. The objective of this article is to present three different methods to predict latent variables based on classical summed scores, individual item responses, and latent variable models. Methods This is a review of the literature and data analysis using "layers of information". Data was collected from the North Carolina Back Pain Project, using a modified version of the Roland Questionnaire. Results The three models are compared in relation to their goals and underlying concepts, previous clinical applications, data requirements, statistical theory, and practical applications. Initial linear regression models demonstrated a difference in disability between genders of 1.32 points (95% CI 0.65, 2.00) on a scale from 0–23. Subsequent item analysis found contradictory results across items, with no clear pattern. Finally, IRT models demonstrated three items were demonstrated to present differential item functioning. After these items were removed, the difference between genders was reduced to 0.78 points (95% CI, -0.99, 1.23). These results were shown to be robust with re-sampling methods. Conclusions Purported differences in the levels of a latent variable should be tested using different models to verify whether these differences are real or simply distorted by model assumptions.