In our practice, we get a lot of questions from parents, clinicians, and other professionals about both the spectrum and value of potential psychological assessments, since we are both clinical psychologists who specialize in testing. These questions are very understandable, as psychology is a huge field with many subspecialties. Unfortunately, it is also a field plagued by poorly-defined terminology and jargon which makes it hard for clients, families, or professionals who are looking for answers. (Truth be told, it is constant work for professionals to with the ever-changing lingo.)
The intent of this blog is to help define some basic terms within the field of psychology and to clarify the “whos,” “whats,” and “whys” of psychological assessment. After reading this article, we hope you will better understand the basics of psychological assessment, who administers psychological testing, the subspecialties of psychological testing and what sort of testing you or your child might need.
Let’s start with defining psychological testing, which is interchangeably known as a psychological assessment or psychological evaluation.
What is psychological testing?
- The main purpose of psychological testing is to gain a better understanding of a person and her/his behavior.
- The goals of psychological assessment are to better understand a person’s strengths and weaknesses, identify potential problems with cognitions, emotional reactivity, and make recommendations for treatment/remediation.
- All types of psychological evaluations measure an individual’s functioning at a specific point in time and provide a “snapshot” of a person.
- Almost all psychological testing is administered by a licensed psychologist (or trainee) and is a formal process that requires extensive training and expertise. Psychologists are the only professionals that are expertly trained in administering and interpreting psychological tests.
- Psychological testing is not one single test, but a series of scientifically developed tests and procedures that assess various aspects of a person’s psychological functioning. Types of tests and procedures include:
- Interviews – Unstructured or semi-structured conversations with the client, caregivers, teachers, and other individuals familiar with the client. Interviews allow observation of social, language, and communication skills.
- Norm-Referenced Measures – These are tests that are standardized (“normed”) over clearly defined groups with representative characteristics of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or other features. These tests allow us to compare the client we are assessing with a broader “normal” group (e.g., comparing this teenager with the “average” teenager).
- Behavioral Observations – Observing the client’s behavior during the assessment and, when possible, in his or her natural environment such as the classroom, home, playground, etc.
- Informal Assessment Procedures – These adjuncts supply supplementary information to support formal test procedures and may include things such as school records, standardized test scores (SAT/ACT), medical records, informal background questionnaires, and personal documents.
Who can administer psychological testing?
Formal psychological testing is conducted by licensed clinical psychologists, typically within one of three specialties:
- School Psychologists – These psychologists focus on the developmental processes of youth, primarily in the context of the school and family system. They have special knowledge in the areas of development, learning, effective instruction, governmental stipulations and parenting practices.
- Clinical Psychologists – Considered the “generalists” of psychology specialties, these individuals function in many capacities, such as mental health providers, assessors, consultants, educators, or researchers. Clinical psychology is a broad field that focuses on the identification and treatment of intellectual, emotional, psychological, social, and behavior problems. Common areas explored include mood disorders (depression/bipolar disorders), anxiety, personality functioning, substance abuse/addiction, trauma, autism spectrum, learning disorders/ problems, anger/aggression/conduct problems, and risky behavior.
- Clinical Neuropsychologists – A specialty within psychology that focuses on understanding brain-behavior relationships. These psychologists (many of whom have degrees in Clinical Psychology) have advanced training in neuroanatomy, brain development, neurological disorders, and other issues associated with abnormal brain functioning. They specialize in the assessment and/or rehabilitation of disorders of the nervous system, including dementia, neurodegenerative disorders, traumatic brain injury, seizures, learning disabilities, infectious diseases, and other neurologic and neurodevelopmental issues.
What are the different types of psychological testing?
Consistent with these specialties, there are three broad types of psychological assessment:
- Psychoeducational Assessment – These evaluations are typically performed by school psychologists or other learning specialists who often work directly in the school setting. These evaluations include formal assessments of a child’s intelligence and academic skills. Sometimes, screening measures of emotional and behavioral functioning are included. The goal of this type of evaluation is to determine why a child is struggling in the classroom and develop remediation strategies that can be implemented within the school setting. Of the three types of assessment described here, psychoeducational testing is the most limited in scope. As such, these assessments are typically the least time-intensive and the least expensive of the three. In many cases, psychoeducational assessments are administered for free in schools.
- Psychological Assessment – These evaluations are typically performed by clinical psychologists in school, hospital, outpatient, or other settings. Psychological evaluations, as the name suggests, are typically quite broad in scope, and may include many of the same formal assessment procedures used in psychoeducational and neuropsychological evaluations. The goal of these evaluations is typically to clarify diagnoses and inform treatment/intervention. Depending on the scope of the evaluation, the time and cost involved can vary greatly.
- Neuropsychological Assessment – The most specialized type of assessment, these evaluations are performed by neuropsychologists. Though these evaluations include components of psychoeducational and psychological assessment, they typically go into greater detail regarding the functioning of specific regions of the brain. These assessments typically evaluate in great detail things such as memory, attention, information processing, sensory perception, language, fine motor skills, visual-spatial skills, and other neurocognitive processes and provide recommendations for remediating any identified deficits. Because this type of testing is often the most detailed, it is also typically the most time-intensive and expensive.
What type of psychological assessment does my child need?
Here is a broad outline regarding who will benefit from which type of assessment:
- Psychoeducational Assessment – This type of evaluation is recommended for children who are struggling to meet academic and/or behavioral expectations within the school setting. If your concerns about your child are primarily academic in nature and/or you are concerned about potential attention problems (ADD, AD/HD), or specific difficulties in language, reading, writing, or math, this type of evaluation will likely be sufficient to identify and address your child’s needs at school. If your child appears to be suffering from mental health issues or consistently struggles to manage his/her mood, behavior, or relationships, a more comprehensive evaluation is likely needed.
- Psychological Assessment – This type of assessment is recommended for individuals who are struggling with common mental health concerns (e.g., depression and anxiety) or severe psychopathology (bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders, trauma). It is also recommended for individuals who have long-standing struggles regulating their mood and/or behavior or who have difficulties maintaining healthy relationships with family members, peers, or romantic partners. Because psychological evaluations are quite broad and can be tailored to the needs of the particular client, this type of testing is sufficient for most individuals seeking an assessment.
- Neuropsychological Assessment – This type of assessment is recommended for individuals with a history of traumatic brain injury, seizures, dementia, strokes, or other known or suspected brain injury or neurological disease. This type of assessment may also be warranted for individuals who have long-standing learning or executive functioning issues who have not responded well to traditional intervention.
"Does my teen a psychological or neuropsychological assessment?” is our favorite FAQ.
- We find that parents and other professionals refer to psychological and neuropsychological testing interchangeably. This confusion in terms is widespread and problematic within the field of psychology, itself. This issue is not helped by the fact that insurance companies have seemingly arbitrarily identified some tests as “neuropsychological” and some as “psychological.” For example, an IQ test is listed as “neuropsychological” for insurance billing purposes, though neuropsychologists are not the only psychologists who can administer IQ tests.
- Psychological and neuropsychological evaluations are more alike than they are different. They typically both include measures of cognitive, academic, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Clinical psychologists can and do administer many of the same measures as neuropsychologists and, to our knowledge, there are no tests that require specialization in neuropsychology, as opposed to clinical psychology, to administer. Many neuropsychological evaluations we’ve reviewed look exactly the same as psychological evaluations. Clinical psychologists should and do refer to neuropsychologists, however, when there are concerns regarding known or suspected brain damage or neurological dysfunction.
- Relatedly, clinical psychologists, and neuropsychologists are also more alike than they are different. As previously mentioned, neuropsychologists often have a graduate degree in clinical psychology and then complete post-doctoral training in neuropsychology/neuropsychological assessment. Both disciplines can assess learning disorders, AD/HD, autism spectrum disorders, and other neurodevelopmental issues. We know plenty of clinical psychologists who also assess things like dementia and brain injuries, they just can’t call themselves “neuropsychologists” because they haven’t completed the formal additional training.
The most important factor in determining the appropriate person to assess you or your child is the psychologist’s experience and their areas of expertise, not their title nor the technical term for the type of evaluation. Ask questions of the psychologist who will conduct the testing before you commit your child or yourself to the process.
About the Authors
Dr. Todd Corelli received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University and also completed a one-year residency in Pediatric Psychology at Michigan State University Medical School. His extensive experience working with children, adolescents, young adults, and families includes a large private therapy practice working in the community. For the past 18 years, Todd has worked across the country and internationally as an independent consultant for all types of referring professionals. He has worked in a variety of settings, including homes, therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, and wilderness therapy programs. He is licensed in Utah, Hawaii, Vermont, Idaho, Connecticut, New York, and holds a permit (ability to test) in North Carolina.
Todd Corelli, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Dr. Abby Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in psychological testing. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and her master's and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Abby completed her pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. Abby has 10+ years of experience providing therapy and assessment services in a variety of settings, including community mental health clinics, wilderness therapy programs, residential treatment centers, and psychiatric hospitals. She is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) Clinical Psychology (Division 12), the Utah Psychological Association, and the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). She is a credentialed member of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists. Dr. Jenkins is licensed as a psychologist in Utah (License #9166547), Idaho (License #202922), and Oregon (License #2959).
Abby Jenkins, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Resources for Parents/Clients Wanting to Learn More about Testing
- Sattler, J. M. (2008). Assessment of Children: Cognitive Foundations. La Mesa, California: Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc.