Ethical Issues in Testing

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Editor: Neil J. Salkind
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Measurement and Statistics
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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All professional activities of psychologists, including psychological testing, are governed by ethical standards and principles, such as the ethics code of the American Psychological Association (APA). In this entry, the discussion focuses on the ethical practice of formal testing activities as outlined in the APA ethics code.

Selection and Use of Tests

Before the first test item is administered, the evaluator makes important decisions regarding the specific tests to be employed with a particular client. When evaluators select tests, they are ethically obligated to ensure that the tests fall within their areas of competence. For example, a psychologist trained exclusively to work with children will probably be adequately trained to administer children's IQ tests but may need additional training to reach a level of competence with adult IQ tests. Also, tests should be selected for a particular evaluation only if they are appropriate for the purpose of that evaluation. Similarly, evaluators should select tests that are suitable for the client being evaluated, especially considering the client's age, cultural background, and linguistic abilities. Thus, if a psychologist's task is to conduct a personality Page 319  |  Top of Article evaluation for which a popular test, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Second Edition (MMPI-2), might be appropriate, the psychologist should be familiar with the age range restrictions of the various versions of the adolescent and adult forms of the test, as well as the languages in which it is available.

Evaluators should select tests that have established reliability and validity. If no such test is available and the evaluator chooses to use a test with questionable or unknown reliability and validity, this fact should be noted in the report of the results. Likewise, evaluators should use tests in accordance with the purpose and administration procedure outlined in the tests' manuals. This is particularly important with standardized face-to-face tests, such as the Wechsler IQ tests, where uniform administration and scoring are essential to the validity of the test results.

Informed Consent Regarding Testing

Also, before the first test item is administered, the evaluator is ethically obligated to obtain informed consent from the client or from his or her legal guardian, when appropriate. This obligation stands unless the testing is mandated by law or governmental regulations or in other isolated cases, as explained in the APA ethics code. Even when it is not necessary to obtain informed consent, ethical evaluators still inform clients about the testing activities they are about to undergo. In practice, there is some variability among evaluators regarding the specific information they present to a client prior to testing, but in general, this process should include an explanation of the nature and purpose of the testing, any costs or fees, the involvement of third parties (such as third-party payers, legal authorities, or employers), and the limits of confidentiality. In testing situations, confidentiality may be limited by state laws involving a psychologist's "duty to warn" or mandated child abuse reporting. Typically in these cases, a psychologist who, during testing, discovers that a client intends to cause harm to himself or herself or another individual or that a child is being abused breaks confidentiality in order to protect the individual at risk. It is also important to discuss the limits of confidentiality with minors and their parents or guardians, especially regarding the access to testing information that the parents or guardians may have.

Clients should be informed about testing in language they can understand, and their consent should be voluntary rather than coerced. Moreover, the evaluator is ethically obligated to give the client an opportunity to ask questions and receive answers about the testing process before it begins. Generally, it is important to ensure that the client is adequately informed and agreeable to the testing process before beginning.

The Test Itself

When the creators of psychological tests design, standardize, and validate their tests, they should use appropriate psychometric procedures and up-to-date scientific knowledge. Test developers should also aim to minimize test bias as much as possible and should create a test manual that adequately educates test administrators about when, how, and with whom the test should be used.

Evaluators are ethically obligated to avoid obsolete tests. A test may become obsolete when it is replaced by a revision that represents a significant improvement in terms of psychometrics, standardization, or applicability. For example, both the child and adult versions of the Wechsler intelligence tests have been repeatedly revised, with each new edition superseding the previous edition. Likewise, the original Beck Depression Inventory was made obsolete when a revised edition was created in the 1990s to better match depression symptoms as listed in the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). In other cases, a test may be become obsolete without being replaced by a more current edition. Several projective tests created in the first half of the 20th century may fit this description, either because their standardization sample has become antiquated or because they no longer meet professional standards for reliable and valid tests.

Like tests themselves, the data obtained via tests can become outdated as well. For example, data collected during a child's learning disability evaluation via intelligence or achievement test remains applicable to the child for only a limited period of Page 320  |  Top of Article time. As time passes, the child's development and education warrant that similar tests be readministered. Likewise, data obtained via neuropsychological testing may remain accurate for only a limited period of time. After this period, its optimal use may be for comparison to data collected more recently via similar tests.

Qualifications of the Evaluator

Psychological testing should be conducted only by individuals with appropriate qualifications. The evaluator must have competencies specific to the test and the client in question; merely possessing a license to practice psychology does not support unlimited use of psychological tests. An important exception to this rule is the psychological trainee under supervision. Such individuals can conduct testing for training purposes but should do so with supervision suitable to their levels of training and should inform the people they evaluate (or their parents or guardians) of their status.

Scoring and Interpretation

When scoring or interpreting psychological test results, evaluators should consider client-specific variables, such as situational, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural factors. Notes regarding interpretations made in these contexts should be included in the report.

If a psychologist utilizes a scoring or interpretation service in the process of an evaluation, the psychologist should ensure that the procedure is valid for the purpose of the particular test or evaluation. Even if the scoring or interpretation was completed by another person (or computer service), the psychologist conducting the evaluation retains professional responsibility. Those offering scoring or interpretation services to other professionals should nonetheless create reliable and valid procedures and should accurately describe their purpose, method, and applications.

Use of Test Results

Although previous editions of the APA ethics code generally prohibited the release of raw test data to clients, the most recent edition obligates psychologists to release test data to clients (with a signed release from the client) unless substantial harm or misuse can be reasonably expected. In this context, test data include client responses to test items but not the stimuli, questions, or protocols that elicited the responses. This category also includes raw and scale scores as well as notes about the client's behavior during the testing. Without a release signed by the client, psychologists should maintain the confidentiality of test data unless required by law or court order to provide these data. It is important for those conducting testing to be familiar with state laws governing these issues, as well as relevant ethical standards.

In most cases, clients will not seek their own test data. Nonetheless, all clients are entitled to receive feedback regarding their test results. In general, ethical evaluators provide an intelligible explanation to clients (or their parents or guardians) regarding their test results, the meaning of these results, and their possible implications or consequences. In some circumstances (such as some forensic evaluations or organizational assessments), this feedback or explanation procedure may be precluded; in these cases, the evaluator should inform the client during the informed consent procedure that no explanation of results will be forthcoming.

Test Security

Psychologists and others who administer psychological tests are ethically bound to maintain the security of these tests. The APA ethics code requires that reasonable efforts should be taken to maintain the integrity and security of test materials. Individual test takers should not be able to access and review psychological tests before the test administration. When individuals have prior access to tests, test questions, or test answers, the psychometric integrity of the tests is compromised. For example, if a person were to have access to the questions contained in an IQ test beforehand, the individual's test scores could be artificially inflated. Such prior access to test materials would make the test administration invalid. This breach in test security could lead to a gradual weakening in the Page 321  |  Top of Article validity of the test in question if the test stimuli were shared with other potential test takers.

Professionals who are responsible for psychological tests should take reasonable steps to make sure that individuals are not able to review tests before administration, keep scoring keys and test materials secure, and not allow unqualified individuals access to test materials. Copyright law should also be considered before test materials are published or disclosed. Before any portion of a copyrighted test is reproduced, permission should be gained from the publisher or copyright holder.

The security of test materials may be compromised by publishing test materials in scholarly writing, including test materials in court records, maintaining poor control of test materials in academic settings, and the unauthorized distribution or publications of the test materials through Web sites and other means. Reproducing test materials in scholarly writing could compromise test security if test items or stimuli were included in the publication. Caution should be exercised in such cases to maintain test security and adhere to copyright laws. Controlling the security of tests in court settings may be obtained by asking the court to restrict the release of subpoenaed test materials to a psychologist or other individual bound by the applicable ethical standards. Tests can be kept secure in academic settings by keeping them in a secure area and by allowing only those individuals who have been deemed competent test users to have access to the tests. However, even highly trained individuals may at times be unaware of the guidelines promulgated by test publishers that identify the different levels of training necessary for competent test use. For example, some social science researchers may use psychological tests in research that were designed for use primarily in clinical settings. However, these researchers may be unaware of the ethical guidelines that control the security of these tests. Tests designed for clinical purposes that are used in research should be maintained at a high level of security.

The Internet provides an easy method for the unauthorized distribution of test materials by individuals who are not competent test users. Furthermore, nonprofessionals are not bound by the same ethical standards as psychologists and other test users. The unauthorized distribution or publication of test materials may not be under the control of test administrators, but test users are responsible for taking steps to avoid any opportunity for test materials and test scores to be obtained by fraudulent means.

Andrew M. Pomerantz and

Bryce F. Sullivan

Further Reading

American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060–1073.

Fisher, C. B. (2003). Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Koocher, G. P., & Rey-Casserly, C. M. (2002). Ethical issues in psychological assessment. In J. R. Graham & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Handbook of assessment psychology. New York: Wiley.

APA Ethics Code, including a section on assessment:

APA statement on test security in educational settings:

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