Psychological assessment, sometimes referred to as psychological testing, is a process where psychologists gather data in order to answer specific questions about a person’s strengths, challenges, and functioning. Assessment is often an intensive process that may include interviews, review of personal records, and the administration of standardized tests. In this series, I hope to make this process more transparent by explaining what psychological assessment is, when one should consider seeking assessment for themselves or their child, and how an assessment is typically performed.
Assessment begins with identifying the questions that will guide the assessment. This is sometimes called the reason for referral. These span a broad range but some of the more common reasons for referral I receive include:
- “I am a parent wondering if my child qualifies for admission to a particular school?”
- “I am an adult and my partner and I are considering adoption. Our agency is asking us for an assessment.”
- “I am a client who has been in therapy for the last year and feel my therapist is a good fit. But we aren’t sure why some of my symptoms are not improving.”
- “We are parents and our child excelled in the early elementary school years. Now in middle school their grades have declined significantly. It’s led to strife in the home and behavior problems at school. We just aren’t sure what to do.”
- “I am a parent and my child does not qualify for an IEP, but I know their struggle with reading is serious, even though they are very bright. I’d like to know what is happening so that we can create a better plan for support at the school.”
- “I am a graduate student and believe I may have learning or processing needs that are making it challenging for me to complete graduate school. I’m wondering if I qualify for accommodations at school and / or professional examinations.”
- “I am an adult who did very well in high school and college. But when I reached the working world, I found it really difficult to stay on top of tasks and to communicate with colleagues.”
- “I am a spouse with a partner who struggles to keep track of dates, manage their time, and stay organized. They said they have struggled with this their whole life but were never tested. I am wondering if they have a diagnosis that would explain these challenges.”
The referral questions are incredibly important because each of these statements helps to guide the assessment. They shape the questions a psychologist will ask in interviews, the records they may request, and the tests they will administer. Perhaps more importantly, identifying and clarifying the referral questions is the first step in a collaborative assessment process. Clarifying these questions up front helps to ensure that patients receive the most useful and valid information and recommendations. It also allows the psychologist to manage expectations as some questions are not suited for psychological assessment.
With clear referral questions in hand, the process can begin in earnest and typically involves a clinical interview with the psychologist. The interview may include questions about your / your child’s development, experiences with others, medical and mental health histories, and other relevant domains. Psychologists may also provide questionnaires for you to complete (sometimes called self-report measures). Testing often includes the administration of standardized tests. These include activities ranging from the familiar (reading passages or computing math problems) to the less familiar (completing puzzle activities or looking at inkblots). In a later post, I will go into more detail about the different types of tests, how they are used, and their benefits and limitations.
I hope this helps to demystify some of the testing process and communicate the importance of spending some time thinking about the specific questions you hope an assessment can address. Next in the series, I’ll discuss when to consider seeking an assessment by discussing common behaviors and challenges that assessment attempts to address.