Your Comprehensive Guide to Psychological Testing
Part 1: What is Psychological Testing?
Psychological testing: a word you’ve probably heard used in various settings like schools, your therapist’s office, conversations with friends, or maybe even your medical provider. But what exactly IS psychological testing? This umbrella term is often used when somebody is suggesting it as a way to help enhance treatment, reach a diagnosis, or at its most extreme, “read your mind.”
This vague and frequently misconceived information can sometimes lead individuals to be confused about what psychological testing is and how it could potentially benefit them.
In this guide, we will delve into the world of psychological testing, exploring its definition, purpose, the types of tests used, the benefits it can actually provide, and the general requirements for conducting tests.
Whether you are seeking to understand your own mental health better, trying to attain accommodations at work or in school, or giving other medical providers the information they need to optimize your treatment, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools to navigate psychological testing effectively.
Key Terms Around Psych Testing
First things first: In this guide, you are going to hear a lot of different terms. Some of them may sound alike despite meaning very different things, or they may even be words you have never heard before.
Let's define some of the key terms that are commonly used when talking about psychological testing:
Psychological Testing: An umbrella term referring to the use of empirically-supported tests that aim to help gain insight into various areas of psychological functioning such as cognition, memory, language, motor skills, learning, attention/executive functioning, mood, behavior, and adaptive (or everyday) skills.
Psychometrics: The field of psychology as it pertains to the use of testing and assessment.
Psychometrician: A part or full-time mental health provider with a Masters degree or higher who focuses on the administration and scoring of test measures. These individuals are under the supervision of a licensed psychologist and do not interpret tests themselves.
Empirically-Supported: Refers to an instrument being backed by research and strong statistical significance.
Test Battery: A collection of psychological testing instruments chosen by a mental health provider to answer the referral question.
Referral Question: The question that testing aims to answer. This may be related to symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment goals.
Clinical Psychologist: A mental health provider who has received a doctorate-level degree in psychology and practices with a wide range of disorders such as ADHD, Autism, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and personality. Think of this as your “primary care doctor” but for psychology.
Neuropsychologist: A mental health provider who has received a doctorate-level degree in psychology and has specialized training in the application of psychological disorders to medical conditions that impact the brain (e.g., Dementia, Cerebral Palsy, Concussion, Epilepsy, etc.).
School Psychologist: A mental health provider who has received a doctorate-level degree in psychology who works for the school system and specializes in disorders that may impact learning. They primarily conduct educational testing which is paid for by the government.
Forensic Psychologist: A mental health provider who has received a doctorate-level degree in psychology who specializes in the intersection between the law and psychology. These psychologists may conduct tests when an individual is involved with the justice system (e.g., parole evaluations, competency, sentencing, etc.).
Think of it as a mental health checkup for your brain. This assessment delves into various aspects of your mental well-being, including cognitive abilities and emotions.
Psychological testing goes by many names including, but not limited to: mental health testing, psychological assessment, psychological evaluation, and psych evals.
Each patient who undergoes psychological testing will have a battery of tests administered to them based on their unique needs. Through these tests, mental health professionals can gain a deeper understanding of a person's unique characteristics, strengths, challenges, and diagnoses.
By undergoing a comprehensive psychological assessment, individuals can gain insights into their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and identify areas that may need attention or improvement. Psychological testing can help individuals understand their feelings of competency, identify areas for personal growth, and develop strategies to enhance their quality of life.
Psychological testing aids clinicians in identifying and/or differentiating diagnoses such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disorders (i.e. reading, writing, and math learning disabilities), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. It also aids clinicians and other professionals in developing accommodations for school or work, and helps with treatment planning for therapy.
Outline for This Guide
These are the various areas that will be covered in this multi-part guide to ensure your success when approaching testing:
Gain insights into your cognitive ability.
Identify strengths and challenges.
Grow personally and improve your life.
Plan the right treatment.
Differentiate diagnoses to bolster treatment plans and accommodations.
Explore the purpose of testing.
Learn about different test types.
Harness the benefits for a brighter future.
Definition of Psychological Testing
Psychological testing is a systematic method used to evaluate an individual's cognitive abilities, personality traits, and behavioral patterns. It involves the administration of various empirically supported tests that provide valuable insights into a person's functioning and potential. These tests are designed to assess different aspects of an individual's cognitive skills and abilities, as well as their emotional well-being, and provide a comprehensive view of their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth.
Comprehensive psychological assessments include a battery of tests that may include measures of intelligence, short and long-term memory, visual and auditory memory, visual and auditory processing and attention, attention in terms of focused attention, divided attention, attentional shifting, and sustained attention. The measures also look at cognitive flexibility, problem-solving abilities, and organization.
They can evaluate personality traits such as extraversion, agreeableness, and openness to experience. Additionally, behavioral assessments can shed light on an individual's emotional regulation, social skills, and coping mechanisms.
Psychological testing is a valuable tool in mental health diagnosis and often helps provide guidance for appropriate treatment options, such as therapy or medication. It can assist in identifying specific disorders or conditions, such as ADHD and autism,and guide clinicians in developing effective treatment plans.
By administering and interpreting these testing measures, psychologists and other mental health professionals gain a deeper understanding of an individual's unique cognitive and emotional profile. This knowledge can inform therapeutic approaches, interventions, and recommendations for enhancing overall well-being. However, it is important to note that testing can only look at current functioning and is limited to an individual’s performance on that specific day. Thus, results may vary throughout an individual’s lifespan. Testing can help mental health professionals identify changes in functioning as a result.
Now that you know what testing MEANS, stay tuned for future blog posts explaining the various types of psychological testing that you may encounter, the specific benefits of testing, and some common misconceptions to help determine if this may be the right choice for your or your family.
Part 2: Types of Testing and Who Conducts Testing?
Let’s say you’ve been referred for psychological testing by someone, but you are confused by all the different terms that may be thrown at you like “clinical psychologist”, “neuro-psych testing”, or “educational testing.” It can be confusing to figure out exactly what the heck is the difference between all of these types of testing and ultimately, which is the most appropriate for you or your child.
In part 2 of our comprehensive guide to testing, we will discuss the professional requirements for conducting testing, the different types of testing that are available, and what situations you may find them in (meanwhile check out our part 1 if you missed it).
What Are the Guidelines for Administering Tests?
When it comes to administering psychological tests, there are certain standardization guidelines that professionals follow to ensure accurate and reliable results. These guidelines help maintain ethical standards and promote the well-being of the individuals being tested. Let’s explore the key guidelines for administering tests, including the importance of informed consent, the need for standardized procedures, considerations for test settings, and the role of qualified professionals. By understanding these guidelines, individuals can have confidence in the testing process and trust the results obtained.
Professional Requirements to Administer Tests Properly
In order to administer psychological tests properly, professionals must meet certain requirements and possess the necessary qualifications and credentials. These requirements ensure that tests are conducted ethically and effectively, providing accurate and meaningful results.
Advanced degree in psychology or a related field.
Professionals who administer psychological testing measures must be trained in the measures used, and have knowledge of standardized administration for those measures, as well as knowledge of the psychometric properties of the tests to determine its use and purpose in an assessment battery.
In addition to academic qualifications, individuals must also complete supervised training in psychological testing. This hands-on experience allows professionals to develop and refine skills in test administration, scoring, interpretation, and report writing.
Ethical guidelines are another crucial aspect of administering psychological tests.
Professionals must be licensed or certified to administer tests depending on their jurisdiction.
By meeting these professional requirements, individuals can ensure that they are qualified and accountable to administer psychological tests properly, leading to an accurate and ethical assessment of individuals' cognitive functioning and emotional well-being. Psychology Today also has a great guide on how to recognize a “good psychological assessment” to ensure the best mental health treatment.
Types of Mental Health Testing:
Psychological testing is the process of using standardized tests and other measures to determine someone’s mental and behavioral characteristics. Psychological testing is often utilized for the following purposes:
To determine mental health diagnoses.
Measure cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
Aid in developing treatment plans.
Add clarity to diagnostics for medication management and therapeutic purposes.
Who completes this type of testing?
Usually, general psychological testing is conducted by a clinical psychologist or a Masters-level psychology provider who is under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. This may include students (Doctoral Externs, Interns) who are completing their training or full-time psychometricians.
Who is this type of testing appropriate for?
This type of testing is generally appropriate for most individuals seeking to help inform treatment, gain insight into their abilities, or help determine a proper diagnosis. Common referral questions include testing out for neurodevelopmental disorders (Intellectual disability, ASD, ADHD), learning disabilities (although this is generally not covered by insurance in an outpatient setting), mood disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, etc.), or personality-related disorders. However, there are some factors that may make it more appropriate to see a specialist, such as a neuropsychologist. Testing is usually conducted in outpatient mental health clinics or inpatient centers.
Neuropsychological testing looks directly at brain function and determines areas within the brain that may not be functioning correctly. Common issues requiring neuropsychological testing include:
Chronic brain injuries (concussions, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).
Conditions associated with memory loss (dementia, Alzheimer's Syndrome).
General cognitive decline, often related to age.
Conditions associated with certain medical conditions (epilepsy, cerebral palsy, cancer, sickle cell anemia, etc.)
Who completes this type of testing?
Neuropsychological testing is conducted by a neuropsychologist or a Masters-level psychology provider who is under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. This may include students (Doctoral Externs, Interns) who are completing their training or full-time psychometricians. Neuropsychologists are doctoral-level clinicians who have specialized training in the interactions between brain function, medical conditions, and psychological functioning. Testing may be conducted in an outpatient mental health clinic, hospital, or inpatient center.
Who is this type of testing appropriate for?
This type of testing is typically used for those who have medical conditions or have specific questions about how the function and physiology of their brain may be impacting their functioning elsewhere. For example, neuropsychologists can test out for symptoms of dementia, memory loss due to traumatic brain injury, or identify changes in functioning due to treatment for cancer. This is not a comprehensive list of conditions that they may see, so ask your doctor if seeing a neuropsychologist may be best for you.
Psychoeducational testing is used exclusively to diagnose learning disorders such as:
Who completes this type of testing?
Usually, general psychological testing is conducted by a clinical or school psychologist or a Masters-level psychology provider who is under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. This may include students (Doctoral Externs, Interns) who are completing their training or full-time psychometricians.
Who is this type of testing appropriate for?
This type of testing is generally utilized for children and adolescents who are suspected of having difficulties with learning (e.g., reading, writing, math, etc.). The school typically recommends testing based on teacher or sometimes parent requests if the child is significantly struggling to keep up academically. Availability for testing is dependent on the county and school resources for testing and is available at no cost to parents when conducted by the school.
Psychoeducational testing can also be conducted in outpatient mental health clinics but this is typically an out of pocket cost (insurances do NOT cover) in this setting. If you are interested in this type of testing, reach out to your child’s school counselor or teacher to find out if this may be an option.
Forensic testing is used to aid in the determination of psychological functioning as it pertains to the law and justice system. Examples of where forensic testing may be used include:
Evaluations of Competency to Stand Trial
Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity Defenses
Civil Lawsuits (suing private parties for damages)
Custody Evaluations/Divorce Proceedings
Who completes this type of testing?
Forensic testing is typically conducted by a forensic psychologist or neuropsychologist or a Masters-level psychology provider who is under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. This may include students (Doctoral Externs, Interns) who are completing their training or full-time psychometricians.
Who is this type of testing appropriate for?
Forensic Testing is typically useful for individuals who are interacting with the justice system in some way (civil or criminal). For example, sometimes forensic assessment can be useful in aiding custody decisions or determining if someone is a good candidate for conditional release from jail. In these cases, psychologists are sometimes called to testify as an expert witness.
Not all psychologists have the training nor the resources to testify on a regular basis, so it is recommended that you let your clinic know before testing begins if you are or suspect you may become justice involved so that they may decide if you are at the appropriate setting for testing.
As you can see, there are many different types of comprehensive psychological assessments and mental health providers who conduct these services. If you feel that one of these types of assessment could benefit you, call your insurance provider or check out The Psychology Today Find a Provider feature located online here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/psychological-testing-and-evaluation
Part 3: Benefits of Psychological Testing
Psychological testing offers numerous benefits that extend beyond surface-level assessments.
Psychological testing allows for a comprehensive assessment of an individual's skills. These assessments provide objective measures of cognitive abilities, personality traits, and behavioral patterns.
By evaluating these skills, individuals can gain insights into areas of strength and areas that may need further development. This knowledge can be used to align individuals with appropriate accommodations for school or work, and treatment plans in therapy.
Using Test Results to Improve Quality of Life
Psychological test results can be invaluable tools for improving the quality of life. By providing insights into an individual’s cognitive skills and emotional wellbeing, these test results offer a foundation for making positive changes in all aspects of a person’s life.
By utilizing the insights gained from psychological testing, individuals can make meaningful changes to their lives. Whether it's understanding learning styles and preferences, breaking negative patterns, developing healthier coping mechanisms, or cultivating positive relationships, test results act as a catalyst for change and personal development.
Psychological testing is helpful for assessing cognitive skills and emotional wellbeing.
These factors affect school, work, social and home life, which can lead to further emotional difficulties like depression or anxiety as they impact performance or relationships.
Not only is testing looking at current functioning, but psychologists seek to provide potential avenues for improving the quality of life for their clients.
Evaluate skill sets in order to determine accurate and comprehensive diagnostics, treatment planning, and accommodations.
Identify strengths and areas needing improvement.
Set realistic goals for personal and professional growth.
How Exactly Does Testing Improve Quality of Life?
The specific ways that testing can improve quality of life depend on the individual’s need and referral question, occurring on a wide spectrum. For instance, for individuals located near our practice in Northern Virginia, testing may provide an accurate diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental disability which might allow them to qualify for special services such as independent living and employment assistance through the government.
You can read more about who qualifies for these types of services in Virginia on the Department of Rehabilitative Services website. Others may gain insight into smaller but important lifestyle changes that can help improve functioning such as learning how to use technology or executive functioning techniques to meet goals in academic and work settings.
However, for others, improving quality of life may be as simple as recognizing relative weaknesses and identifying a label for what they are experiencing. For some people, having a diagnosis or data to support their experiences can help them feel validated and accepted, leading to improvements in self-esteem or lessening the feeling of isolation.
Examples of Accommodations That May Result from Testing:
A 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan may be employed by your child’s school based on certain diagnoses and needs.
These plans can include accommodations for children to receive special services such as push-in/pull-out education for learning disabilities, extra time on tests, small-group testing, use of communication-assistive technology, behavioral management plans, individualized plans for academic tasks, or other special education services. Please contact your child’s school to determine what accommodations may be available and eligibility requirements.
Depending on your place of employment, employers may choose to allow you to work from home or hybrid settings, allow for communication-assistive devices, allow for more flexible deadlines, or provide quieter work spaces. These accommodations depend highly on the individual employer as they have more discretion than schools. Accommodations must be in compliance with the Americans with Disability Act. More information on what employers are required to provide and eligibility requirements can be found on the ADA website.
Testing may provide insight into what therapeutic interventions (such as CBT, psychodynamic, or trauma-focused therapy) may be helpful for the individual based on their strengths and weaknesses.
Treatment planning can include a variety of therapies such as integration of medication management, physical health, and cultural or religious-congruent options.
Although this is not a comprehensive list of all the types of accommodations that may result from testing, we hope you have a more general idea of how testing could potentially benefit you or your family. In order to get the most out of this testing process, it is important to understand what to expect for your appointment so that you can better communicate your needs to your mental health provider.
Part 4: What to Expect for Your Testing Appointment
Now that you have some information about what psychological assessment is, what the different types are, and how it may benefit your family, let’s talk about what to expect for your evaluation. For many people and families, this can be an intimidating and ambiguous process, but knowing what to expect can help reduce anxiety and gain the most benefit.
A comprehensive psychological assessment usually consists of multiple appointments depending on the referral question, age, and type of testing being performed. However, most evaluations will consist of the following parts:
The Intake Appointment: The intake appointment consists of an initial, shorter (usually 1 hour) session with a mental health provider to gather some background information on the client being tested. The intake helps to ensure that testing is appropriate for the individual and provides insight into the person’s functioning to help inform what tests should go into the testing battery. During this session, your mental health provider will tell you what to expect from the evaluation process.
You can prepare for this appointment by making a document including your medical history, current medications, details about the symptoms you are concerned about (including frequency, onset, duration, and severity) and any questions you have for your provider.
Testing Sessions: Testing may be conducted on one or more days, depending on the amount of tests that will need to be conducted, energy of the client, and levels of cooperation. Situational factors such as illnesses, fatigue, or technical difficulties may result in testing sessions needing to be spread over multiple days as well. After all testing sessions are complete, your clinician will need time to score, interpret, and write up testing results in order to provide a written, comprehensive report. This report covers the individual results, relevant background, diagnosis, and treatment recommendations. Interpretation can often take several weeks (4-8 weeks) due to the amount of work necessary to ensure a comprehensive and individualized feedback.
Feedback Session: Most testing psychologists will provide a separate feedback session once the evaluation report is completed. This session allows your provider to explain the results, diagnosis, and recommendations to ensure understanding and allow a space for processing or questions. After this session, a copy of the report is provided to the client.
Please be advised that although most testing centers follow this structure, there may be individual differences relating to the time available for each part and what is involved in the evaluation itself. Ask your provider about their individual practice’s structure in order to gain the most accurate information for you or your child.
Types of Tests Used in Psychological Testing
During the evaluation process, a variety of tests and techniques may be used to help answer the referral question. The following includes some examples of what might be included in your evaluation and how they might be important:
Standardized, objective, performance-based measures administered by a psychologist that exercise a variety of cognitive skill sets. Gauge intelligence, memory, attention, problem-solving, and other cognitive abilities.
Ideal for comparisons with normative data (a comparison sample usually determined by gender and age)the norm to inform diagnostics for cognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders.
There are two types of personality assessments. There are Objective, self-report measures provided to, and completed by, the client as well as projective tests.
Projective tests are tests where an individual is given a performance-based task that provides insight into the way they view themselves, others, and the world. Projective testing does not have obvious or clear clues into what each item is measuring, so it can sometimes be useful to help provide additional information for people who lack insight or communication skills to express their concerns. However, it is also not always covered by insurance and is commonly an out-of-pocket cost. Projective testing is not frequently used as it does not usually allow for the use of updated normative data and cannot “read your mind.” It is used on a case-by-case basis.
Objective tests are the most commonly given personality measures and typically provide more concrete and statistically-supported information. These are also usually covered by most insurance. Clients answer a variety of emotional well-being questions about themselves. Client responses are compared to, and standardized on, normative samples to determine the severity of emotional concerns and diagnoses.
Clients answer a variety of emotional well-being questions about themselves. Client responses are compared to, and standardized on, normative samples to determine the severity of emotional concerns and diagnoses.
Responses can help develop insight into symptoms and personality traits that may contribute to functional difficulties.
Interviews and Record Review
Clinical interviews and review of relevant records (when available) are helpful in gaining context for responses seen on cognitive and personality measures.
Interviews are usually conducted with the individual client when possible, any relevant and available family members, teachers, or other professionals involved in treatment.
Informant forms may be sent to relevant individuals to gain additional data to quantify observations from other people who frequently interact with the client. This gives the provider insight into their typical functioning when the person is outside the testing room.
A comprehensive assessment will use your results from objective measures with this additional information to help individualize your results and provide insight into how your situational factors (e.g., SES, culture, religion, etc.) might relate to your functioning on these tests. This includes using the most relevant research on the various tests that are chosen for your battery.
Your testing provider will create an individualized battery consisting of these various elements, so they may differ from person to person. Talk with your clinician about which tests may be the most helpful and relevant for your individual situation.