Psychological evaluations & testing
Psychological evaluation and testing is an in-depth way of understanding and measuring behavior and personality. The aim of an evaluation is often to answer a question or concern about a person’s mental health, ability, or functioning.
Testing is a component of a psychological evaluation. Testing is often a formal type of activity, using tools designed to measure a person’s behavior. Typically, the data from testing is combined with other information gathered by the clinician to form an overall psychological evaluation. Neuropsychological testing is a type of psychological test.
Psychological evaluation is helpful for a variety of reasons; importantly, it is used to inform the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions, including ADHD, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and memory issues. It is conducted by a specialized mental health professional - usually a licensed psychologist - who has specific training in the administration and interpretation of psychological tests.
Read on for more information about psychological evaluation and testing and what it can help with.
What is psychological evaluation and testing?
Psychological evaluation is a comprehensive picture of a person, based on information gathered in a variety of formal and informal ways, including:
- Interviewing the person
- Observing the person’s behavior
- Looking at the person’s records (medical, school, employment)
- Talking to other individuals familiar with the person (such as family and friends)
- Formal psychological testing (neuropsychological or personality testing, for example)
Psychological testing involves tests, questionnaires, and activities, usually more formal in nature. Typically, the tools are performance-based, meaning that people actively participate in tasks or interviews. Tests might measure behavior, emotion, mental abilities, or personality, for example.
The tests are standardized, meaning that they are administered in the same way to everyone who takes them, so that the results can be evaluated equally and fairly. They usually often allow for comparison of the results to a normative sample. This means that the results are compared to the performance of a comparable sample of people - those of a similar age, sex, race, education, or other demographic factors. This enables the clinician to decide whether the examinee is performing as would be expected, compared to similar people. It’s important to remember that there is no pass or fail mark, just an individual profile of strengths and weaknesses.
What psychological evaluations and testing can help with
The applications of psychological testing and evaluation are wide-reaching. Some examples of the uses of psychological evaluation are described below.
Example One: Psychological evaluation to determine the underlying cause for a child struggling in school
If a child is struggling at school, they may be referred for a psychological evaluation to determine the underlying cause. A range of factors could be contributing, such as attentional challenges (as is characteristic of ADHD), dyslexia, mental health challenges, or a learning disability. The clinician may have the child take psychological tests, as well as use corroborating data from teachers and family members through interviews, questionnaires, and school reports to gain a full picture. Psychological testing and evaluation can help tease out the underlying difficulties and then guide the application of supports and treatment.
Example Two: Neuropsychological testing to detect and diagnose memory loss issues in an aging person
An aging person may experience issues with their memory, which begins to affect their ability to go about their day-to-day activities. Neuropsychological testing of their mental abilities (‘cognitive functioning’) can help to detect and diagnose clinical issues, including neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. The information can also be used to inform treatment and provide supports to improve quality of life.
Example Three: Mental health diagnosis and personality assessments to evaluate the causes of interpersonal issues
If an adult is having relationship problems and the reason is unclear, psychological testing and evaluation can help pin down the cause. For example, the clinician might assess the client for anxiety or depression, provide a personality assessment, or use tools to explore whether there are problems with anger management or assertiveness. As with the other examples, correctly identifying the underlying difficulty means that the most appropriate treatment can then be used to help.
What happens in a typical psychological evaluation or test?
An evaluation typically begins with a clinical interview with a mental health professional. They often ask questions about the reasons motivating the evaluation, about family, background, functioning, and symptoms. This can be intuitive and explorative in an unstructured interview, or the clinician may follow a set of questions in a structured interview format.
In the same session, or perhaps over a couple of sessions, the clinician guides the individual through one or more psychological tests designed to assess something specific (such as mental abilities, personality, or emotional state, for example). Tests vary in length, with some taking several hours to complete. Some of these tasks might feel like puzzles, quizzes, or pencil-and-paper activities. The specific tests chosen by the clinician depends on what each individual’s presenting concern is.
To form a comprehensive picture, the clinician might integrate the results of the psychological testing and interview with information gathered from other sources. For example, they may also speak with other individuals who know the client (with the person’s consent, in most cases). This information helps the clinician confirm a diagnosis.
The clinician integrates all of this information and is often able to reach a diagnosis. They use this to inform the best-fitting treatment plan to address the person’s needs.
What to look for in a clinician for psychological evaluation and testing
There are several factors to keep in mind, including:
Your specific concern: The best-fitting type of mental health professional varies according to the particular concern. For example:
- If there are concerns about changes to a person’s behavior following a brain injury, a neuropsychologist would be an appropriate choice.
- If you are concerned about your child’s behavior or school performance, a child psychologist or child psychiatrist might be the best fit.
If you are unsure which type of provider will be the most appropriate fit for you, try talking it over with your primary care doctor.
A licensed psychologist who is trained in and offers psychological evaluations is also a good place to start, as they will have training in the administration and interpretation of psychological tests. Look for one with a specialization in the concern you want help with. They often provide this information in their biographies in their online profile or website.
Personal fit: Psychological evaluation and testing often occur in a one-off or over just a few appointments, and therefore the relationship differs from the usual client-therapist relationship. However, many individuals continue to work with their clinician, receiving treatment guided by the evaluation. In this case, it’s important to make sure you feel comfortable with the practitioner.
The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. The best way to judge how you might feel about a practitioner is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also allows you to ask about their experience and what the testing will be like.
Find therapists specializing in psychological evaluation and testing
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- American Psychological Association, “Understanding psychological testing and assessment”. Accessed online January 2020 at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/assessment
- Psychological Testing in the Service of Disability Determination, “Overview of Psychological Testing” (chapter). Accessed online January 2020 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305233/