Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Psychological Assessment

Psychological assessment is a process designed to measure characteristics of individuals or groups. Assessment procedures involve gathering samples of resposnes or behaviours for description of present characteristics and/or prediction of future ones. The most common type of assessment is psychological testing; other techniques include observation, interview, and rating.

Psychological tests aren’t magic. They assess and evaluate information that you give to the examiner, which is why the formal name of psychological testing is psychological assessment. You give this information either in the form of answers to interview questions or as answers on paper—or on a computer—to specific questions. Ultimately, a test’s accuracy depends on how carefully and seriously you answer the questions you’re asked.

In its original sense, science (from the Latin scire, to know) simply meant the state or fact of knowing, as compared to intuition or belief. The current technical sense of the word, however, refers to knowledge obtained from systematic observation, study, and experimentation.

Psychological tests aren’t magic; most of them have been developed through sound scientific principles. In fact, anyone who wants to become a psychologist must learn all the scientific principles of test construction; even if a psychologist has no desire to create a new test, he or she must be competent to evaluate the scientific value of any specific test before using it clinically. 

Unfortunately, there are many psychological tests in wide use that are accepted as being scientific just because they are called “tests.” For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram, often used in educational and corporate personnel settings to assess personality “types,” are based in pseudoscience and psychobabble and have about as much worth in clinical settings as astrology. Any competent psychologist can use intuition to get as much information as these “tests” provide. 

And then there is the classic Rorschach test that uses inkblots to assess a person’s inner psychological experience. Several methods for administering and scoring the Rorschach have been developed, and although some of them are surrounded with a considerable amount of published research, it would be surprising if any two independent psychologists could administer the Rorschach to the same person and achieve identical findings.

Similarly, tests such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which asks a person to tell stories about various pictures of social interactions, and the Draw-A-Person and House-Tree-Person, which ask a person to draw pictures, are not usually objectively scored and give results of questionable validity.

In the end, then, psychological testing can, in some ways, be both valid and reliable; yet, in other ways, it often does not achieve much more than an impressionistic evaluation of a person. And often the science and the pseudoscience are quietly mixed together in one “scientific” report.

Test scores can be very useful under the proper circumstances—and when the limitations of psychological testing are properly understood and respected.

Note, however, that the score you get on any psychological test is nothing more than “the score you have gotten on that test.” Let’s say you took an IQ test and got a score of 126. Well, your IQ test score may be 126, as measured by that test, at that time, under those circumstances. But what is your real IQ? Well, no one knows. And that’s a fact. So what does an IQ test really measure? Well, again, no one knows. And that’s another fact.

Note also that every well-known and widely used psychological test in the US was developed and standardized in English. This might not seem very important, but just consider what happens when someone needs to be tested who doesn’t speak English fluently. If the test is translated into another language—either in print or through a translator—all kinds of problems can occur. English words with multiple meanings cannot be adequately translated. English idioms cannot be expressed in another language without changing the entire sentence structure along with the underlying logic of the sentence—and when that happens standardization, and the guarantee of fairness it promises, is lost.

So, even though translated versions of tests might be used, and even though you might be given a score that appears to be official and scientific, that score is nothing more than “the score you have gotten on that test.” This might not mean much to you, and it might seem like philosophical quibbling. But what if your life depended on that score?

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