Cognition & Reality

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Real Role of Psychological Testing

Filed under: Testing — drtone @ 4:40 am

For over thirteen years, from 1989 through 2002, I worked for a major test publisher as a member of the professional staff. My colleagues and I designed and developed psychological and educational instruments of various sorts.  I worked on neuropsychological instruments, pencil-and-paper tests detecting and quantifying the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, tests for use by occupational therapists and speech pathologists, and various personality instruments. A test of which I am the author is, as far as I know, still widely used in child custody evaluations.

During my time on the job, I became increasingly uncomfortable and dismayed as I came to recognize the true purpose of most psychoeducational testing. Although tests are ostensibly for collecting information that can be used clinically, they exist mainly to help professionals of all stripes, psychologists, physicians, social workers, lawyers, judges, and others, cover their collective ass. They are used principally to document and provide a basis for the difficult decisions that arise in legal, medical and mental health settings.

For example, a judge faced with a difficult child custody case–and most child custody cases are difficult–can refer to the report filed by a psychologist charged with assessing the fitness of the parents and their relationship with their children. That report usually contains the scores of the parents on my test or others like it, and on personality instruments such as the MMPI. It probably also contains test results for the child or children involved in the unhappy situation before the court. Given the enormous complexity of a custody case, and the huge ramifications for the parents and the children of the decision the judge renders, it is understandable that a judge might point to test scores, acquired at great expense, as a way of justifying and rationalizing a decision made with or without actual reference to those scores.

Intelligence and achievement tests fall into a different category. It is not true, as some insist, that those who design these tests deliberately include items and factors that discriminate against particular ethnic groups. OTOH, a score on a test such as the SAT can have a disproportionate effect on an individual’s life.  Just as is true for a personality instrument, the results of a test of ability can be used to justify important decisions, shifting responsibility away from the authorities who make those decisions.

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