Snippets From The World of Psychology - Should the use of psychological tests be restricted?

Restriction of psychological tests to psychologists (Australia)
The attempt to restrict the use of psychological tests to psychologists raises practical issues in relation to definitions, and the means by which a restriction can be administered. Problematic areas include defining what is a psychological test (or reaching agreement on which tests should be restricted), and the means by which a local practice restriction can be enforced within the globalised, online community. More will be made of these points further in this brief document, but the fundamental principle underpinning any restriction is based upon the false assumption that “title equals competence”. Ipso facto, it also means that under a practice restriction regime, those individuals not registered as psychologists are considered to lack the competence to use psychological tests. The potential for negative impact from the inappropriate use of psychological tests is acknowledged, but it is argued that a practice restriction is not the best solution.
The way around this dilemma is to consider an external benchmark, rather than embed restriction within a nominated group. This external benchmark (including training, education and accreditation/certification) provides for a more flexible means of ensuring competence and in modifying standards as new techniques, applications and technologies emerge. Such a process already has been developed in both the UK and Europe, with the development of differentiated three-tiered models for organisational or occupational psychologists, educational psychologists and, more recently, forensic psychologists (draft standard). Future programs and standards are likely to be developed for clinical and other psychologists. With this three-tiered system, those at the level three (the highest) are considered to possess the equivalent of a Master’s degree in psychological testing and assessment.
Being a psychologist does not necessarily mean that one is particularly competent in test use, even if confining oneself to use of the tests within a particular endorsed area of practice (e.g. organisational psychology applications). The breadth of our discipline means that a tiered accreditation system has great merit in helping the market ascertain the testing skills of a psychologist (or non psychologist).
Other issues and dilemmas to consider:
  • What is a psychological test? Does it include 360 degree survey instruments (for example) and does it also include certain processes as well as instruments?
  • Bartram (2010) contends that there are three skills required for testing in applied settings:
    a.  Knowledge of psychological constructs
    b.  Knowledge of psychometric constructs, and
    c.  Knowledge and skills related to the use of the instrument(s).
    The third (c) determines the level of knowledge required in (a) and (b). The test needs to be considered in the light of its intended use and the competence of the person using and interpreting the test. (This parallels the notion that a test does not have validity in itself, but it is the inferences based upon the test use which have validity.)
  • Technology has had a huge impact over the last decade, with many tests administered online. A number of leading people within the testing and assessment field believe that within 10 years all testing and assessment will be conducted online. (This is apart from the clinical/neuro fields.) How does a local practice restriction deal with situations where the client organisation, test recipient and test professional are located in three different countries around the globe?
  • Some have argued for restricting ‘test administration’ to psychologists. This would strike a significant blow within the organisational psychology field. It would significantly raise costs, and thus organisations will be much more likely to use techniques with poorer psychometric qualities, e.g. unstructured interviews. Furthermore, what of online testing, particularly unproctored, where it is often an assistant who sets up the testing for the test recipient – very much a clerical activity. For those arguing for restriction on test administration, there would clearly be a need to define what constitutes ‘administration’. Another definitional issue? Moreover, the role of a psychologist will be ‘dumbed down’ in many respects and (simple) administration reduces the psychologist’s capacity to operate at higher levels. Economically, this is an unsound practice for a nation. Furthermore, various government agencies (e.g. the ADF) draw heavily on trained ‘psychological examiners’ or ‘psychological assistants’ (both non psychologists) for test administration.
  • Restricting the use of psychological tests to psychologists would also have an impact on the use of psychological tests by client organisations, even if test administration could be conducted by trained non-psychologists. As noted above, this would raise costs and lead to the use of sub-optimal methods. There is elasticity in demand, particularly in cost sensitive industries.
  • There is some possibility that if the use of tests is restricted to psychologists, a certain note of complacency may emerge. Psychologists may be tempted to move into areas beyond their area of expertise, while being unaware of the test limitations (and contextual issues) within a new application or setting.

The Way Forward:

As mentioned, the way to address these issues is by focusing upon external benchmarks. The submission by the APS College of Organisational Psychologists (August 2010) to the Psychology Board of Australia is a comprehensive document which includes material outlining the structure of the UK and European test accreditation systems. In addition, the International Test Commission, in a letter dated August 2010, also argues clearly against the implementation of a test restriction model.
While the external accreditation system is a key component of enhancing test user competence, it is recommended that it is combined with:
  • Education of stakeholders (publishers, test users, test recipients, client organisations, educational bodies and referral bodies) in relation to recognised levels of competence in test use (via accreditation).
  • Reinforcement of publisher standards. Currently many publishers are providing a valuable service by filling a gap in providing training for individuals who wish to use their tests. This is the starting point for a national or even international agreed standard for such training with some form of independent quality assurance. Given the increasing globalisation of society as a whole, an international perspective has real merit.
A practice restriction may well raise the ‘floor’ of psychological test use and assessment by reducing the frequency of total incompetence. However, it will not eliminate poor practice, as psychologists have also been responsible for poor test use. By introducing a practice restriction (alone), the general standard of test use is unlikely to rise. However, by introducing an external accreditation program, not only will the ‘floor’ be raised, but also the general standard should be increased substantially.
While the implementation of an effective training and accreditation system would not be a simple task, the system developed in the UK (by the BPS) provides an excellent template. Moreover, the process of raising standards can be incremental and continuous, engaging with the stakeholders along the way.
Peter Macqueen
13 September 2011
A partial restriction (e.g. for certain specified clinical instruments) has more merit than a full restriction. But still there are issues in relation to some of the elements mentioned in this document. A restriction approach is politically unpopular and is unlikely to be supported, particularly when there are alternative and more effective strategies available to raise standards.