Psychological assessment is a process of testing that uses a combination of techniques to help arrive at some hypotheses about a person and their behavior, personality and capabilities. Psychological assessment is also referred to as psychological testing, or performing a psychological battery on a person. Psychological testing is nearly always performed by a licensed psychologist, or a psychology trainee (such as an intern). Psychologists are the only profession that is expertly trained to perform and interpret psychological tests.
Psychological assessment should never be performed in a vacuum. A part of a thorough assessment of an individual is that they also undergo a full medical examination, to rule out the possibilities of a medical, disease or organic cause for the individual’s symptoms. It’s often helpful to have this done first, before psychological testing (as it may make psychological testing moot).
4 Components of Psychological Assessment
A standardized psychological test is a task or set of tasks given under standard, set conditions. It is designed to assess some aspect of a person’s knowledge, skill or personality. A psychological test provides a scale of measurement for consistent individual differences regarding some psychological concept and serves to line up people according to that concept.
Tests can be thought of as yardsticks, but they are less efficient and reliable than actual yardsticks. A test yields one or more objectively obtained quantitative scores so that, as much as possible, each person is assessed in the same way. The intent is to provide a fair and equitable comparison among test takers.
Norm-references psychological tests are standardized on a clearly defined group, termed the norm group, and scaled so that each individual score reflects a rank within the norm group. Norm-referenced tests have been developed to assess many areas, including intelligence; reading, arithmetic, and spelling abilities; visual-motor skills; gross and fine motor skills; and adaptive behavior. Psychologists have a choice of many well-standardized and psychometrically sound tests with which to evaluate an individual.
Norm-referenced tests have several benefits over non-norm-referenced tests. They provide valuable information about a person’s level of functioning in the areas covered by the tests. They relatively little time to administer, permitting a sampling of behavior within a few hours. Each appraisal can provide a wealth of information that would be unavailable to even the most skilled observer who did not use testing.
Finally, norm-referenced tests also provide an index for evaluating change in many different aspects of the child’s physical and social world.
Valuable information is gained through interviewing. When it’s for a child, interviews are conducted not only the child, but the parents, teachers and other individuals familiar with the child. Interviews are more open and less structured than formal testing and give those being interviewed an opportunity to convey information in their own words.
A formal clinical interview is often conducted with the individual before the start of any psychological assessment or testing. This interview can last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, and includes questions about the individual’s personal and childhood history, recent life experiences, work and school history, and family background.
Observations of the person being referred in their natural setting — especially if it’s a child — can provide additional valuable assessment information. In the case of a child, how do they behave in school settings, at home, and in the neighborhood? Does the teacher treat them differently than other children? How do their friends react to them?
The answers to these and similar questions can give a better picture of a child and the settings in which they function. It can also help the professional conducting the assessment better formulate treatment recommendations.
Standardized norm-referenced tests may at times need to be supplemented with more informal assessment procedures, as such as projective tests or even career-testing or teacher-made tests. For example, in the case of a child, it may be valuable to obtain language samples from the child, test the child’s ability to profit from systematic cues, and evaluate the child’s reading skills under various conditions.
The realm of informal assessment is vast, but informal testing must be used more cautiously since the scientific validity of the assessment is less known.
Psychologists seek to take the information gathered from psychological assessment and weave it into a comprehensive and complete picture of the person being tested. Recommendations are based on all the assessment results and from discussion with peers, family, and others who may shed light on the person’s behavior in different settings. For instance, in children, information must be obtained from parents and teachers in order for psychological assessment to be considered complete and relevant to the child. Major discrepancies among the findings must be resolved before any diagnostic decisions or recommendations for treatment are made.
Psychological assessment is never focused on a single test score or number. Every person has a range of competencies that can be evaluated through a number of methods. A psychologist is there to evaluate the competencies as well as the limitations of the person, and report on them in an objective but helpful manner. A psychological assessment report will not only note weaknesses found in testing, but also the individual’s strengths.