Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Professional ethics and standards for assessment practices in Atkins MR/ID cases

Psychological assessment is serious business. This is particularly true in the life-or-death nature of Atkins MR/ID death penalty cases. The two primary relevant codes of ethics and standards are briefly summarized below. This summary does not include similar codes/standards that have been promulgated and are relevant to psychology specialties (e.g, forensic psychology; neuropsychology; school psychology; etc.). Professionals are responsible for knowing and following specialty specific codes and guidelines.

This is a summary of key assessment related principles and standards and is not intended to serve as a comprehensive single source to guide professional behavior

Psychological testing and test score interpretation in general, and IQ testing in the current context of diagnosing MR/ID in an Atkins setting in particular, are serious professional activities with enormous potential positive and negative consequences for the individual being tested (AERA, APA, NCME, 1999). Aside from the guidelines specified in 11th edition of Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and System of Supports (AAIDD, 2010), detailed professional codes of ethics and standards for developing psychological tests, selecting psychological tests, testing and test score interpretation have been promulgated by the relevant professional governing bodies. As set forth in the codes and standards (a select key set) described below, test users have a number of responsibilities to ensure that inferences drawn from test scores are valid and are based on existing scientific evidence.

The “gold standard” set of standards for the development, use and interpretation of psychological and education tests is the American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), and National Council on Measurement (NCME), Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (1999: a revision of these standards is in progress; typically called the Joint Test Standards). As prescribed in the Joint Test Standards, test users have a number of responsibilities to ensure that inferences drawn from test scores are valid. These include (emphasis via italics added):

Standard 1.4: If a test is used in a way that has not been validated, it is incumbent on the user to justify the new use, collecting new evidence if necessary.

Standard 11.15: Test users should be alert to potential misinterpretations of test scores and to possible unintended consequences of test use; users should take steps to minimize or avoid foreseeable misinterpretations and unintended negative consequences.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2010 Amendments) also sets forth important ethical principles governing the administration and interpretation of psychological assessment instruments. Principles relevant to assessment and diagnosis include (emphasis via italics added):

9.01 Bases for Assessments:

(a) Psychologists base the opinions contained in their recommendations, reports, and diagnostic or evaluative statements, including forensic testimony, on information and techniques sufficient to substantiate their findings.

9.02 Use of Assessments:

(a) Psychologists administer, adapt, score, interpret, or use assessment techniques, interviews, tests, or instruments in a manner and for purposes that are appropriate in light of the research on or evidence of the usefulness and proper application of the techniques.

(b) Psychologists use assessment instruments whose validity and reliability have been established for use with members of the population tested. When such validity or reliability has not been established, psychologists describe the strengths and limitations of test results and interpretation.

9.06 Interpreting Assessment Results:

When interpreting assessment results, including automated interpretations, psychologists take into account the purpose of the assessment as well as the various test factors, test-taking abilities, and other characteristics of the person being assessed, such as situational, personal, linguistic, and cultural differences, that might affect psychologists' judgments or reduce the accuracy of their interpretations. They indicate any significant limitations of their interpretations.

9.08 Obsolete Tests and Outdated Test Results:

Psychologists do not base their assessment or intervention decisions or recommendations on data or test results that are outdated for the current purpose.

(b) Psychologists do not base such decisions or recommendations on tests and measures that are obsolete and not useful for the current purpose.

Collectively, the Joint Test Standards and APA code of ethics prescribe that assessment professionals (a) use contemporary instruments and procedures, (b) base their test interpretations on scientific evidence supporting the reliability and validity of their interpretations, (c) be aware of the strengths and limitations of the assessment procedures they use, (d) document any limitations in the instruments used and scores provided that bear on their interpretation of results, (e) only interpret scores for purposes for which they have been validated, (f) be aware of, and take necessary steps to minimize, unintended negative consequences of their testing and test interpretation for individuals, particularly in high stakes settings, (g) and follow the assessment related principles and standards articulated in the Joint Test Standards and APA code of ethics.

Inherent in these principles and standards is the understanding that psychologists, when faced with discrepant test data, attempt to explain and hypothesize possible reasons for the divergent results based on scientific evidence and accepted professional standards. The Joint Test Standards in particular make it clear that psychologists must be aware of the basic psychometric characteristics, strengths and limitations of the assessment tools they use and apply that knowledge in their subsequent interpretation and presentation of conclusions in written or oral communication.

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