Psychometric tests & psychological assessment: where the twain meets.

“Practicing psychologists have the professional training and clinical skills to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues” (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/about-psychologists.aspx).

In Malta, and possibly everywhere else, Educational Psychologists (EPs) focus on applying psychological science to improve the learning process and promote educational and development success for all students. In an effort to maximize efficiency, validity, reliability, and objectivity, many Psychologists find themselves including psychometric tools in their practice.

Whilst no one seems to question the usefulness of these tools, the “over-use” or “over-dependence” of psychometric tools could lead EPs to be seen exclusively as psychometricians.

My argument here is that this definition, of an EP as a psychometrician, is very limiting.

What are psychometrics?

The word “psyche” comes from a Greek word which refers to the mind. The term “metric” refers to the process of measurement. Psychometrics are testing tools which are used to measure various aspects of mental function. A psychometric test is an objective resource for identifying and measuring qualities in individuals in order to make informed decisions. The tests available range from intelligence tests (IQ tests), personality tests, tests of motivation, learning skills, attitudes, etc. Psychologists use these tests because they consider them to be an objective and standardized measure, enabling them to obtain valid and reliable measures of particular skills or abilities.

Is an Educational Psychologist (EP) a Psychometrician?  

The short answer is: not exactly!

Let me elaborate:

The psychometric aspect to a EP’s work is only a small aspect of the role a psychologist fulfils. EPs are highly trained professionals who use psychometric tests to inform their practice: i.e. their assessments and decisions/recommendations about intervention.

Farrell et al. (2006) suggest that the core focus of the Educational Psychologist is assessment and intervention pertaining to children’s cognitive, linguistic, sensory, physical and/or social and emotional development. In this definition, Farrell (2006) points towards the intermingled nature of assessment and intervention. Nevertheless, these ‘procedures’ are often regarded as two separate courses of action pertaining to two separate dimensions with no apparent connection. Moreover, assessment is sometimes perceived to be the main, and sometimes the only, professional service an educational or school psychologist can offer (Harrison, 2009). The irony of this supposition is that it is as correct as much as it is incorrect. Accuracy of the supposition lies in the fact that assessment is one of the key tasks that Educational Psychologist performs. As mentioned earlier, it is also one of the tasks which EPs are highly specialized in! EPs have received a great deal of training on how to use psychometrics, and how to use them in the process of identifying a child’s strengths and difficulties.

Nonetheless, the fault lies in the notion of assessment held within “popular culture”, that assessment is a test, and one and the same as psychometrics.

Psychometrics tests & psycho-educational assessment

This notion of psychologists as a psychometrician is owed to the fact that standardized norm-referenced tests have represented conventional practice for a long time, especially when it comes to obtaining measures of performance of intellectual functioning, academic achievement and social-emotional functioning (Dykeman, 2006). Norm-referenced assessment strategies compare a child’s performance on a standardized test with the typical performance of other children of same age (Dykeman, 2008).

Assessment, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary refers to the act of judging or deciding the amount, value, quality or importance of something. While this is a precise definition of the word ‘assessment’, it is an incomplete description of what the process of psychological-assessment (or psycho-educational assessment) entails.

Frederickson, Webster and Wright (1991) describe the process of psychological assessment as an in-depth investigation of a broad range of hypothesis that builds on research from all areas of psychology. They assert that this is at the heart of the distinctive contribution that educational psychologists can make. Sayeed and Guerin (2000) delve deeper and depict assessment as the identification of a child’s level of functioning through the use of observation and/or interaction with the objective of understanding the child’s needs and potential.

In their book, “Frameworks for practice in Educational Psychology”, Kelly, Woolfson and Boyle (2008) strive to provide clarity regarding the process of psychological assessment and its place in the practice of Educational Psychology. Their line of reasoning recognizes assessment as being an integral component of the course of action leading towards change, in which the Educational Psychologist is the catalyst. Assessment is thus anything but a test that a child is obliged to pass. Rather, it resembles more the start of a relationship that sets the tone for all future interventions.

Professional guidelines for Educational and Child Psychology practice, set by the British Psychological Society (2002), acknowledge the usefulness of psychometrics. However, they also encourage psychologists to take a wider view of assessment.

In my opinion, an overly strict focus on positivist ontologies and epistemologies, whilst indeed providing objectivity, could actually subjugate the EP to a psychometrician’s role. Psychometrics can indeed provide information on an array of qualities. However, these tools alone do not always provide sufficient depth and insight into the complexity of a child’s reality.

Sayeed & Guerin (2000) encourage EPs to consider alternatives to ‘psychometric models’ of practice. In their opinion, psychometric models provide too static an impression of a child. Whilst also acknowledging that such tools are useful, they argue that the “psychometric model” contributes very little towards planning future involvement and interventions.

Frederickson et al., (1991) argue that static assessment frameworks limit outcomes to mere descriptors of behaviors and abilities. They propose that psychological assessment should move beyond describing what a child can and cannot do. They argue that the process of psychological assessment should “understand why particular patterns of strength and difficulty are being experienced” (Frederickson et al., 1991. pp. 20).

Are psychometric tests for everyone?

Bagnato, Neisworth, Paget & Kovaleski (1987) argue that even though psychometric tests do in fact provide adequate reliability and validity, the unnatural testing situation, the complex language demands, and the question and answer format are for the most part foreign to children pertaining to the early-years demographic. This early-years bracket has been given more importance in relation to Educational Psychology practice, ever since research supporting the notion of intervening as early as possible in a child’s life came about (Kenny & Culbertson, 1993). Hence, the issue of which assessment an EP must use with such a potentially delicate age group arises. This issue is amplified by the child’s spontaneity and lack of self-consciousness; characteristics which are frequently associated with early years.

As a matter of fact, often very young children will not have ‘typical’ school-age behavior during administration of tests. This is primarily because normal developmental transitions affect the motivation, interests, and cooperation of young children (Culbertson & Willis, 1993). Their behavior would be irregular or unpredictable especially if they have never been in a structured school setting before. This would make the idea of sitting down at a table, and doing activities an examiner requests, implausible for the child. Furthermore, children with little interpersonal experiences with adults might react with fright or aggression to the demands of their examiner (Kamphaus, Dresden, & Kaufman, 1992).

Whilst standardized tests could be adequate for school aged children, it is dubious if not improbable that preschool children can perform to the best of their potential under such unnatural conditions. Preschool children are more prone to encounter difficulties with physically accessing activities, comprehending standardized directions, producing verbal responses and coping with untried materials (Sayeed & Guerin, 2000).

In view of these facts, Blaker Sayer (2003) maintains that Educational Psychologists should become increasingly familiar with tests that are more suitable for this young demographic. Thus, whilst it is imperative to always keep in mind the purpose of the assessment being undertaken, Educational Psychologists should always strive to employ assessment tools which are sensitive to the demographic being considered (Frederickson et al., 1991; Pellegrini., 2001).

Conclusion: if there could ever be a conclusion to this debate!!!

Psychometric tests are very useful tools. They do present EPs with the opportunity to obtain information on a wide range of skills and abilities. However, psychometric tests are one amongst a variety of tools which can be used to inform ones practice. Furthermore, one has to be cautious about the conclusions and/or assertions made as a result of such summative and static assessment instruments.

Also, to answer my first question: is an EP a psychometrician?

Maybe the better answer would be: “yes…EPs are psychometricians…amongst many other things”.

EPs are psychometricians…and so much more!

References:

Bagnato, S. J., & Neisworth, J. T., Paget, K., & Kovaleski, J. (1987). The developmental school psychologist: Professional profile of an emerging early childhood specialist. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 7, 3, 75- 89.

Bagnato, S, J., & Neisworth, J, T., (1994). A national Study of the Social and Treatment “Invalidity” of Intelligence testing for Early Intervention. School Psychology Quarterly, 9, 2, 81-102.

Blaker Sayer, K. (2003). Preschool Intellectual Assessment. In Reynolds, C. R. & Kamphaus, W. R. (Eds.), Handbook of Psychological & Educational Assessment of Children: Intelligence, Aptitude, and Achievment (pp. 187-203). London: The Guilford Press

British Psychological Society (2002). Professional Practice Guidelines: Division of Educational and Child Psychology. Leicester: PBS.

Culbertson, J. L., & Willis, D. J. (1993). Introduction to testing young children. In Culbertson, J. L., & Willis, D. J. (Eds.), Testing young children: A reference guide for developmental, psychoeducational, and psychosocial assessments (pp. 1-10). Austin: Pro-Ed.

Dykeman, B. (2006). Alternative strategies in assessing special education needs. Education, 127, 2, 265-273.

Dykeman, B. (2008). Play-Based Neuropsychological Assessment of Toddlers, Journal of Instructional Psychology, 35, 4, 405-408.

Farrell, P., Woods, K., Lewis, S., Rooney, S., Squires, G., & O’Connor, M. (2006). A review of the functions and contribution of educational psychologists in England and Wales in light of “Every Child Matters: Change for Children”. London: DfES Publications.

Frederickson, N., Webster, A. & Wright, A. (1991). Psychological assessment: A change of emphasis. Educational Psychology in Practice, 7, 1, 20-29.

Harrison, P. L. (2009). Preschool Assessment. In Gutkin, T. B., & Reynolds, C. R. (Eds.), The Handbook of School Psychology (pp. 247-268). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kamphaus, R. W., Dresden, J., & Kaufman, A. S. (1992). Clinical and psychometric considerations in the assessment of preschool children. In D. J. Willis & J. L. Culbertson (Eds.), Testing young children: A reference guide for developmental, psychoeducational, and psychosocial assessments. Austin, TX: pro-ed.

Kelly, B., Woolfson, L., & Boyle, J. (Eds). (2008). Frameworks for Practice in Educational Psychology: A textbook for trainers and Practitioners. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kenny, T. K., & Culbertson, J. L. (1993). Developmental screening for preschoolers. In J.L. Culbertson & D.J. Willis (Eds.), Testing young children: A reference guide for developmental, psychoeducational, and psychosocial assessments (pp. 73- 100). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Pellegrini A. D. (2001). Practitioner Review: The Role of Direct Observation in the Assessment of Young Children. Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 7, 861- 869.

Sayeed, Z., & Guerin, E. (2000). Early Years Play: A happy medium for assessment and intervention. London: David Fulton Publishers.

 

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