5 Questions to Ask About Psychological Tests

Standardized psychological tests. To the parents of children with multiple or severe disabilities, the very mention of them causes the hair on the back of our necks to bristle. To teachers who have faith that a child is capable of learning, the reaction is the same (because, good teachers DO want kids to succeed, contrary to some negative myths floating around in a few parent circles). Why do we respond with such gut-level dread to standardized psychological tests?
Because there are none currently available that give kids with severe multiple disabilities a fair shake at demonstrating their current abilities or their potential to learn. Prove me wrong—PLEASE! I want to be wrong on this one.
In fact, I want so badly to be wrong that I wrote to several leaders in special education, ones who contribute to Peter and Pam Wright’s excellent site, Wrightslaw. If you know Wrightslaw, you also know it firmly supports using test data to make correct placement decisions. The consensus in the replies I received from these authorities is that the current standardized psychological tests set up kids who cannot speak or point or write for certain failure.

The purpose of standardized pyschological tests is to compare how a child is functioning with other children under the same set of circumstances (which, obviously, will be different depending on the environment, teacher, etc. But the goal is to make the circumstances as standard as possible). Then those numbers are analyzed through the same filter as is used for all the other children taking the test. If either the way the test is administered or the way the numbers are interpreted is modified, the scores are no longer standardized. But what if your child isn't standard?
There are instances (and modifications…keep reading) when information from the tests might be helpful. If you are asked for permission to test your child with severe or multiple disabilities, here are some important questions to ask before granting that permission:
1) What is the purpose of having my child take this test?
How will the information and/or scores be used? Will it be the sole determination of my child’s placement or program (um, no thank you)? Will it be considered in the context of a variety of information, such as classroom assessments, data on classroom performance, teacher observation?
2) Has my child been taught the skills this test measures?
It is only fair to give an academic test after participation in an academic program. Most standardized tests are academic. Does your child’s classroom teach academics? Sadly, many “life skills” classrooms do not. To ask your child to demonstrate things he has not been taught is degrading, setting him up for sure failure, and plain old wrong.
3) Can my child take the test as it was written and standardized?
Does my child read/write/speak/point proficiently enough to respond to the questions? If not, the test cannot provide an adequate measure of your child’s abilities or knowledge. It simply measures the limitations in his ability to respond. This information could be obtained in simpler, gentler ways without stigmatizing your child.
4) Will the test be modified? How?
Ask to be shown.
To be considered “standardized,” psychological tests are required to be given according to a strict protocol—no deviations. This often means children are expected to work for specific lengths of time but no longer, to respond in specific ways, with directions that may not be repeated, and without having questions clarified. Many of our kids are not capable of working in these conditions.
Modifying the way a child takes a test renders standardization—and scores—useless. We may still gain important insights into the child’s learning strategies by looking at the modifications and the way the child responded to them. However, the scores become invalid and should never be used “against” the child.
I have had to give standardized tests in non-standard ways. What the parents and I look over together is how the child has done with the modifications. For example, if a child cannot speak to read a sight word, can he identify the word out of a group of closely spelled foils? The skill is not identical, but his corrects and errors give insights into his sight word knowledge. They do NOT give a score by which to compare him against other children in the standardizing pool, however.
5) Can the staff show how this test provides my child a reasonable and fair way to demonstrate his/her knowledge?
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of having your child tested with standard psychological tests that are now available, ask this question in a kind, honestly-seeking-an-answer way.
We have had to do this for our daughter, whose multiple disabilities set her far apart from any groups of students that these tests were standardized against.  When the school staff realizes that they can’t show us how this test is either reasonable or fair to her, they back down. They realize that there are better measures for her that demonstrate her skills and deficits…ways that are more accurate and more dignified for her.
If there are new tests to the market that do give non-verbal, severely motor-impaired kids a fair shot at standardized feedback about their learning, PLEASE do tell us all!

(Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com)


Anonymous said...

Hello, Pandora's Box!

You provide very useful questions for other parents to use, Rose-Marie.

I offer to collaborate with you on a post (or two) on this subject - game? I will send you an email message. Barbara

Rose-Marie said...

Thanks, Barbara--I'd love to collaborate on a post together!

You know, I don't try to make it a habit of stirring up trouble. :0) But this is one instance where a system that was intended to protect the kids it serves may find that a one-size-fits-all approach works just the opposite...

Anonymous said...

bless you! I just revoked permission for testing for Abby. The solution they offered for testing a nonverbal kid with no hand use was to use a test for nonverbal intelligence--you know, the kind that depends on "hands-on" abilities.....and knowledge of geometry, etc. When I said that she'd never been taught things like geometry they got pretty snippy--said it was an intelligence test, not a test of subject matter..... seemed best to let it die a natural death. Would it be OK if I copied your blog post and shared it?

Donna G.

Rose-Marie said...

Hi Donna,

Good for you! If it would be helpful, please feel free to copy and share.

The CTONI-2 and the TONI-4 both require pointing. If Abby can't point with her finger...you're looking at modifications. If the she would be able to point with her eyes, the pages will have to be enlarged and cut apart...a modification. Unless the tests have been normed with these response modes, the scores are invalid.

I read some interesting criticisms on the CTONI-2. One point is that some of the graphics are outside the experiences of children with mobility issues. Another is that 91% of the norming sample had no disabilities (see John Willis, http://alpha.fdu.edu/psychology/ctoni_comments.htm).

Food for thought. I think you did the right thing revoking the testing.