Tests, in general, are used to measure or evaluate any number of values, abilities, and conditions. Just about everyone has been involved with some type of test, be it a woman taking a simple pregnancy test to a lawyer taking her bar examination. Psychological tests come in many forms and are used by a variety of people for near limitless reasons. As new tests are developed or old ones find new uses, many issues arise both legally and ethically. Following is a brief synopsis of psychological tests, their uses and abilities, and also some dilemmas.
Psychological testing is used to obtain some gauge, usually numerical in nature, with regard to an ability or attribute (Cohen, Swerdlik, & Sturman, 2013). Often intertwined with testing, psychological assessment deals more with the evaluation of the subject or question at hand. When discussing types of tests and their differences, this paper will focus more on the types of assessments used in analyzing an individual or group. This is an important distinction because many of these testing methods rely on the assessor who is key to the process of selecting tests and/or other tools of evaluation as well as in drawing conclusions from the entire evaluation (Cohen, et al, 2013). Although straightforward tests are one of the tools used, there are many more which specifically rely on the abilities of the assessor.
Tests themselves usually measure or score a certain ability, criteria, or many other features. They do not necessarily rely on the ability of the examiner and can often be administered by computers alone. Quite often the interpretation of results is left to a qualified assessor. An important aspect to psychological tests is psychometrics, or the science of psychological measurement. Here, the utility of the test itself is analyzed to make sure the test measures what it purports to measure. While tests themselves can reveal a value, it is often up to the assessor to determine how that value coincides with the larger picture of evaluation.
Perhaps the most commonly used tool for psychological assessment is the classic interview. Most, but not all, interviews are on a one-on-one basis and can reveal a multitude of information. Besides the back-and-forth of conversation, interviews can shed light on other factors not noticed in other testing methods, specifically body language and gestures. Interviews are highly informative based on the skill and abilities of the interviewer. Think of a Sunday morning political news show. Often, we see an interviewer ask a simple question with no follow-up. Very little information is conveyed other than what the politician has prepared for. However, a highly skilled interviewer might press the politician for more information, diving deeper into the subject at hand. In a clinical interview, this is pertinent. After all, it’s difficult to understand the patient’s needs or the question at hand if no one has had a discussion with the subject.
Portfolios, while not particularly common or useful in diagnosing or treating patients in a clinical sense, can be very revealing in the psychological assessment of candidates for employment. A portfolio demonstrates a person’s abilities and prior work experience to determine if she is the right fit. This is especially useful in dealing with education.
Case studies are also a very useful tool especially when the subject of the study might not be available to be tested, interviewed, or assessed in a different manner. Looking at one’s history can reveal points in time where behavioral changes occurred, abilities changed, or even reasons for those differences. In an article written by James Beasley (2004) and published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, he discusses the case studies of seven serial murderers. According to him, “Voluntary interviews do have some drawbacks. Among these are subject acquisition criteria that rely on self-selection, reliability of information based on self-report, and the amount of time required collecting and verifying data.” Interviews alone may only tell what the murderer wants the interviewer to know, whether or not the information is even true. A case study assembles a larger picture by taking into account the crime, motivations, history, medical issues, as well as much more.
Often, it’s difficult to interview, test, or build a case study around children and other people with certain disabilities. Sometimes, it’s best to watch them in a situation that might reveal a particular behavior or quality. Behavioral observation usually involves the assessor monitoring the subject performing a specific activity hoping to reveal insightful information. With children, the assessor might watch a child interact with dolls to detect anything abnormal about her activity. However, these settings are often in a controlled environment which can interfere with the activity and behavior itself. This is why many assessors prefer naturalistic observation where it’s possible to observe the subject in a real-life situation and in the natural environment where that situation would occur. An example demonstrating these differences would be a child frequently being involved with fights at the playground. Bringing that child into a controlled environment to “play” with other children might have an influence on the situation. Therefore, the researcher might set up a date with the child’s parents to watch from a distance how the child interacts with others at the playground. This naturalistic observation would allow the researcher to monitor the child in her natural playground environment, perhaps even with the same children as usual, while not interfering at all with any behavior.
Role-playing tests have a limited role in assessment, but can be useful in very specific situations. One of the most beneficial uses is for training without going through the time to fully train someone. For example, a human resources employee might use role playing to help management understand some of the problems or issues affecting lower-level employees. It forces the subject to empathize or relate to someone else in a different scenario. The manager wouldn’t have to learn a machine operator’s job, but only try to imagine himself in that role.
Finally, there’s computerized tests. These are usually more straightforward quantifiable tests rather than many of the previous ones mentioned which rely more upon assessment. Quite often, these tests are paired with other forms of testing to build a more complete analysis of a subject. Some of these tests include personality, behavioral, IQ, stress, mood, and many more. Once completed, a score or report is often accompanied detailing the test-taker’s performance. Computer testing can be an integral part of assessment and adds a few major advantages. Both time and costs are minimized as compiling information and scoring results can be done almost instantaneously versus a test user having to do the analysis manually. Tests are uniform when needed and have no interference from test users. And more sophisticated tests can be adaptive, or automatically tailored on test content and length based upon responses of test-takers (Cohen, et al, 2013). Every trade has its tools, and computers have become an essential component to psychological testing and assessment.
Each type of psychological test has its benefits, but they also have their limitations. For example, computers themselves rarely have the ability to interpret body language or prosody. Likewise, test users are inferior to the computational power of the simplest computer. Uniformity is also rather inconsistent from interview to interview. However, that could also be considered an advantage, depending on the quality of the assessor. Both role playing and portfolios are very useful in business settings, but have limited usefulness in clinical settings. However, the largest drawbacks to assessments are the beliefs, cultures, and interpretations of assessors. Cultural and socioeconomic biases have shown to be factors in psychological assessment. Biased views can be held knowingly or unknowingly and can result in action or a failure to act (Snowden, 2003). Just because one African-American test-taker scores below average on a particular test doesn’t mean that all are predisposed to similar attributes. Often times, personal biases aren’t even known or realized to the individual. Sometimes, they are deeply engrained into a cultural perspective. This can also lead to misuse of testing or even skewed results. For instance, in regard to body language Western cultures view a head shake as a “No” answer. However, in India, a quick head shake can mean “OK” or “Go ahead.” Someone unfamiliar with this cultural difference could completely misinterpret answers in an interview or other face-to-face test. Or worse yet, the interviewer might not know what the gesture meant, but instead of clarifying or reporting an unknown response, the interviewer might record it as a “No” answer out of frustration, or looking to ascertain expected results. All tests using human interpretation face the same limitations – they rely heavily upon the assessor’s ability to recognize and properly understand what is being tested. All humans make mistakes, and human judgement is highly fallible.
In order to minimize legal and ethical issues, most professions establish a code of professional ethics in which a standard of care is developed at the level which the average, reasonable, and prudent professional would provide diagnostic or therapeutic services under the same or similar conditions (Cohen, et al, 2013). The American Psychological Association (APA) has set ethical standards for test-user qualifications, testing those with disabilities, the use of computerized testing, and the rights of test-takers, including informed consent, the right to be informed of test findings, the right to privacy and confidentiality, and the right to the least stigmatizing label (Cohen, et al, 2013). Many of these ethically related codes are due to enacted legislation besides just that of the APA code of ethics. Two of the most influential laws passed to protect large swaths of the public were the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which stated that employment testing materials and procedures must be essential to the job and not discriminate against persons with handicaps, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made law that it is an unlawful employment practice to adjust the scores of, use different cutoff scores for, or otherwise alter the results of employment-related tests on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin (Cohen, et al, 2013). Along with other legislation, these acts help to ensure practices are fair, private, and non-discriminatory. Additionally, truth-in-testing laws were enacted specifically for psychological testing so participants would know the test’s purpose, the knowledge and skills the test claims to measure, procedures for ensuring accuracy in scoring, procedures for notifying test-takers of errors in scoring, and procedures for ensuring confidentiality (Cohen, et al, 2013). For instance, it would be unethical as well as illegal to knowingly give false information to an individual for the purpose of eliciting a different response. While some in the psychological community argue it’s necessary to add deception to some tests, there’s a fine line between deception and illegal activity. Instructing a test-taker that answers will not be recorded or assessed and only the time taken to answer will be recorded, when in actuality both will be, would most likely be considered a violation.
Psychological testing and assessment can bring some very useful information to light and is extremely beneficial in so many instances. There are so many testing methods due to the very nature of extracting the needed results. A computer could be insufficient at reading emotional non-verbal cues, whereas a test user can’t compete against the processing power of a computer. Each has its own series of benefits and drawbacks. Used in conjunction with each other, complete assessments can be accurately developed to further the knowledge base of the field as well as the individual subject being studied. As new techniques and tests are created, new ethical standards and laws often follow to protect the concerns of the public as well as the test-taker herself.
Beasley, J. O. (2004). Serial murder in America: Case studies of seven offenders. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 22, 395-414. doi:10.1002/bsl.595
Cohen, R. J., Swerdlik, M. E., & Sturman, E. D. (2014). Psychological testing and assessment: An introduction to tests and measurement, 8th edition. McGraw-Hill.
Snowden, L. R. (2003). Bias in mental health assessment and intervention: Theory and evidence. American Journal of Public Health, 93(2), 239-243. doi:10.2105/AJPH.93.2.239