David J Carey
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Understanding Psychology

Understanding Psychological Assessments and Academic Testing

Educational psychological assessment is a formal procedure undertaken individually between a psychologist and a child (or any person). After building up rapport and making the child comfortable, the psychologist will administer a test to the child. There are many tests that can be administered so I will just introduce and explain the most commonly used tests. First though, it is necessary to discuss some general principles of testing.

Tests do not tell anyone anything! They do however yield data and information that then must be intelligently consumed by the qualified assessor. The information gathered from a test must fit into the picture of the whole child’s life, background, family dynamics, learning and schooling history, motivation, health history and a thousand other variables. Anyone who takes the simplistic view that a test provides an answer that can be used to definitively unlock the riddle of a child’s learning problems is seriously mistaken.

What is Intelligence?

Arguments about the nature of human intelligence and what comprise it are centuries old. We have looked at one particular psychological test that is based on a model of intelligence that conceives it as a combination of verbal and non-verbal skills. This model feeds into the common-held understanding that being intelligent means you will ‘be good at reading and maths, you will perform well in comprehensive examinations and you will necessarily perform well in school and get into the university programme of your choice’. This is obviously a narrow model and a dangerous assumption – it’s one that is being challenged vigorously from many fronts today.

IQ is probably the most commonly understood, and at the same time misunderstood, concept about human intelligence. The problem with IQ scores is that they are far too easy to misinterpret and lead quickly to assigning people into the general categories of ‘smart’ or ‘limited’. An IQ is nothing more than a mathematically derived formula to quantify various test scores. There has been a lot of research into IQ and it has been discovered that it is a good predictor of one thing, and one thing only – success in school! This is particularly true of the Wechsler model of IQ.

As stated earlier, there are other models, and a popular one is that developed by Howard Gardner*, which is known as Multiple Intelligence theory. Gardner was dissatisfied with the major model of intelligence and the type of educational structures that have resulted from this model. Gardner has stated, “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand [morality] if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do...”.

Gardner believes that every human being possesses a number of different capacities, all as a result of brain system functioning, which can be called ‘intelligences’. For Gardner, there are at least seven different types of intelligence and our inability and difficulty in recognising them is a result of the way we educate people, relying mostly on words and numbers.

Gardner lists his seven intelligences as:

• Linguistic Intelligence – facility with words, reading, speaking.

• Logical-Mathematical Intelligence – facility with numbers, logical-
sequential thinking.

• Interpersonal Intelligence – being sensitive to and understanding
other people.

• Intrapersonal Intelligence – knowing oneself, one’s beliefs, attitudes
and values.

• Musical Intelligence – the capacity to respond to music or perform

• Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence – ability to move, athletics, dance.

• Artistic Intelligence – responding to or creating visual or plastic art.

Since creating his first list of seven intelligences Gardner has continued his research and now believes there are sufficient grounds for adding one other:

• Naturalist Intelligence, which he defines as enabling “…human beings to recognize, categorise and draw upon certain features of the environment.”

Gardner continues to investigate the nature of human intelligence and is considering the possibility that he can add to his list the following:


• Moral Intelligence – a concern with those rules, behaviours and attitudes that govern the sanctity of life – in particular, the sanctity of human life and, in many cases, the sanctity of any other living creatures and the world they inhabit.

• Existential Intelligence – a concern with ‘ultimate issues’.

• Spiritual Intelligence – exploring the nature of existence in its multifarious guises.


According to Gardner, every human being has capacities wired into their brains that are manifested in these intelligences to one degree or another. In other words, we are all intelligent – it’s just that we show our intelligence in different ways. I have oversimplified this theory to a great degree but the point I wish to draw to your attention is how much we can underestimate certain children when we conceive of intelligence merely as an IQ figure obtained from a particular test.


This ‘obsession’ with IQ testing can lead to low expectations on the part of educators when the test results are low; low expectations quickly translate into poorer teaching methods, less reinforcement in the classroom for the child and therefore lower performance on the part of the child.


The stakes are high in the IQ race and the winners are more often than not created by those who teach them than by any so-called natural intellectual endowment. Think of it this way; if a person has an IQ of 185 but possesses no ability to understand himself or others, what sort of a life will he lead? Generally speaking the answer will be a life of frustration, wrong choices, unhappiness in love and relationships, and constant disappointment.


Gardner’s theory has its critics and is not universally accepted as an alternative model of human intelligence. But whatever concerns arise about it and from it there is no disputing the fact that Gardner is responsible for brining to the fore the issue of intelligence and expanding our understanding of what it is.


Intelligent tests require intelligent testers

Put simply, intelligence testing requires intelligent testers. Additionally, tests in themselves are not useful instruments to classify children into special education categories. I have seen far too many children with autistic spectrum disorders given tests of intelligence with the results indicating that their intelligence is significantly impaired - yet anyone working with the child, or any family member, can relate poignant stories of the child’s keen mind and different ways of thinking that clearly demonstrates their intelligence. I am therefore wary of intelligence tests when they are relied upon to provide the sole answer, solution, and source of information used to provide special education services.


The information gathered from a test falls into some general categories. If the purpose of the test is to assess intellectual skills (often referred to as cognitive skills), the information gained should shed light on most of the following:


• Verbal skills

• Non-verbal skills

• Attention and concentration

• Visual memory

• Auditory memory

• Short-term, long-term and immediate recall of visual and auditory information

• Social judgement

• Social comprehension

• Hand-eye coordination skills

• Perceptual organisation skills (orientation in space and time)

• Abstract reasoning, both verbal and visual

If the purpose of the assessment is to investigate alleged behaviour or emotional problems, then in addition to the above, the information gathered should shed light on: 

• Frustration tolerance

• Impulse control

• Anger management

• Coping skills

• Interpersonal judgement

• Stress tolerance

• Anxiety issues

• Fears and phobias

• Unusual thoughts or ideas/beliefs

• Knowledge of right from wrong

• Social problem-solving skills

• Motivation for schooling

• Preoccupations and obsessions

• Mood (emotions of short duration)

In general, the more information one is able to gather from assessment, the greater the possibility of putting together an intelligent formulation that helps everyone involved in the life of the child to understand the child more comprehensively. The written assessment should clearly provide insight into the referral question and all related information necessary to understand the child. It should be easily read by a teacher or parent, should not contain jargon or scores that can not be understood by all who read it and should outline specific recommendations for educational and support services and strategies necessary to enable the child to benefit from their educational programme.

Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children


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