How do tests work?
In its most basic sense, testing is a way of sampling some aspect of the entire possible universe of behavior, in a structured way, allowing us to compare what you do to what other people do in a similar situation.
We are measuring present performance only — no test can measure “potential” or any permanent magic IQ number tattooed in your genes. Testing does not measure anything inherent about you — it measures what happened on that day when you were given that test by that person in that environment. Like a scientific experiment, assessment is a structured method for gathering data.
We might compare you to other people who are similar to you and ask how typical or unusual your behavior is (norm-referenced assessment) or we might compare you to some specific level of performance we expect to see (criterion-referenced assessment).
We choose the specific sample of behavior and the basis for comparison depending upon the specific question we’re asking. It’s kind of like doing a logic puzzle — if you can do this but not that, what do these things have in common and how do they differ?
In most cases, we are structuring the test situation so that you cannot use whatever normal workarounds you have to avoid problems that are difficult for you. Also, we typically test using the “Goldilocks principle” — some elements that are too easy, some that are too hard, and some that are just right. In particular, watching what you do and how you respond, when we ask you to do something you cannot do very well, can be very informative.
Tests do not diagnose — professionals do. There is no score or score pattern which by itself can tell you what type of school your child should attend, whether your child has a disability, or what she should be when she grows up. We look for consistent themes between scores, behavioral observations, and reported history; we’re trying to find a coherent and logical hypothesis that explains the data well.
In fact, careful behavioral observations are often more informative than the scores themselves. While a second opinion can often find sense within numbers that the original tester did not see, being there in person is a lot better.
In addition to the broad cognitive (IQ) and academic assessments most parents are familiar with, there is a wide range of other options. Neuropsychological testing enables us to do the “logic puzzle,” testing very specific cognitive skills. Diagnostic academic tests overlap with neuropsychological ones, breaking academic skills down into specific components so that we can figure out why the person is having trouble and what approaches might be helpful. Behavioral checklists ask observers to say how often they see particular behaviors in real life, although these are often little better than simply interviewing informants, and are extremely vulnerable to cognitive biases (e.g., self-serving bias, confirmation bias). Self-reports of personality ask a client to agree or disagree with various statements, which are then collated into factor scores correlated with various clinical issues. Projective measures ask for open-ended responses to ambiguous stimuli, with the assumption that when you’re not sure what to do, what comes into your mind is likely to be a reflection of how you think or feel about things similar to that stimulus and therefore of how you often interact with the world around you. Many tests overlap categories (e.g., the Rorschach is both a projective and a neuropsychological test, the MMPI includes symptom self-reports, the boundary between diagnostic academics, neuropsychological, and general cognitive tests is very blurry). Plus, the entire process of testing is itself an assessment of social skills — how well can you collaborate with the evaluator?
No test is perfect. What we look for is good reliability (that it measures *something* consistently), good validity (that what it measures reliably is actually something we’re interested in), and good applicability to the specific question being asked about the specific person being tested.
When to test and how to find a professional?
The right time to test is when you are (1) asking a question that testing can answer, and (2) the answer will be useful in some way. It might guide an intervention, open a door (e.g., get you into a program or access accommodations), inform a conversation between people who have differing views about what is going on, satisfy parental curiosity, help an older child or adult make sense of themselves during a life dilemma or transition, or something else. Thinking about the specific purpose of testing guides the testing process. It is not necessary to test gifted children early and often — it is frequently not necessary to test them at all.
It is important to find a professional who understands giftedness and how multiple exceptionalities (e.g., ADHD, Asperger’s, learning disabilities, psychological distress) can affect testing results, someone who can make a thoughtful interpretation of what is often highly complex data. Many professionals simply push the button on automatic report-writing software and hand you a report that doesn’t really answer the questions you walked in with.
It is also important to find someone you personally feel comfortable working with as a gifted person. If you feel that you’ll have to do all the work yourself, or that you’ll to take care of the fragile ego of the tester, or that you’re not getting your questions answered in ways you can understand, it would be wise to look elsewhere.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.