The Ins and Outs of Psychoeducational Testing

Upon becoming licensed ten years ago, I began scampering around in search of “gigs” to supplement the meager income I was making as a part-time community-mental health therapist and college lecturer. It was my good fortune to land a two-year position with Teri Solochek, an educational consultant in the San Fernando Valley who was well known for conducting psychoeducational testing with the wayward children of the upper-strata and placing them in high-end therapeutic boarding schools around the country.  I nodded politely and disguised my ignorance when she spoke of psychoeducational testing, assuming it was a of hybridization of the more regal psychodiagnostic testing that we are all trained to do in graduate school. Indeed, my stint with Teri Solochek proved to be auspicious and I incorporated psychoeducational testing as a dimension of my own private practice.

So, what is psychoeducational testing (PET) and how does it differ from psychodiagnostic testing (PDT)? Generally speaking, PET is conducted primarily for the benefit of parents and the school (although it may also be forwarded to an outside mental-health professional for medication-related reasons or to embolden therapeutic work), and the report that is generated is utilized by parents and educators to implement any school-based accommodations and home-based adjustments that might maximize a child’s learning.

If the child is in private school, at the request of parents, the psychologist may consider consulting directly with the school to share findings, identify favorable classroom accommodations, and advocate for the child. Since the psychologist serves as an ambassador for the child and his or her parents, diplomacy, discretion and sensitivity need to prevail in the psychologist’s dealings with school personnel. If the child is in public school, the PET report can be used by parents to secure special-education services (mostly as a prelude to a school psychologist conducting a formal Individualized Education Program (IEP) assessment); or, when the issues are less severe, to request a 504 plan, whereby the child can remain in a regular classroom, yet still access accommodations.

Typical accommodations include: use of a laptop or tape recorder in the classroom; access to a printed outline of lecture content; a change of seating arrangement; extra time on tests, untimed versions of tests, or take-home tests; or, a reduced work load. Such accommodations would depend on the presence of learning deficits. We all know the “usual suspects” of a reading (formerly dyslexia)  or mathematics disorder, where the child’s performance on a standardized test in any of these domains lags significantly behind his or her overall intellectual expectancy. Less well known, but equally as debilitating, are impediments in grapho-motor speed (output of paper-and-pencil skills), visual and auditory processing.  A typical battery I employ is either the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children—IV, or the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Cognitive Ability (my preference because it generates more information), the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement, the Bender-Gestalt, and the Gray Oral Reading Test—4th Edition.

If psychosocial vulnerabilities appear to co-exist with, or potentially trump, learning impediments, PET then includes standard psychological tests such as the Draw-A-Person Test, Sentence Completion Test, Roberts Apperception Test for Children, Achenbach Behavior Checklists, and in the case of teenagers, the Millon Adolescent Clinical Inventory and/or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—Adolescent version. The psychosocial testing findings and any diagnostic conclusions arrived may or may not be shared with the school depending on whether the parents and psychologist reach a consensus regarding the perceived beneficiality for the child of the school receiving such findings.

The report can also be a constructive jumping-off point in discussing with parents their child’s learning style, intellectual potential, optimal school-child or teacher-child fit, unmet emotional needs, interpersonal style, and other factors that have implications for alterations in school placement, parenting styles, and family lifestyles. Any need for outside educational therapy, tutoring, or vision therapy can be addressed in feed-back consultations with parents.

PDT usually is far narrower than this, serving to clarify diagnoses for medication or legal purposes, and any report generated is primarily for outside mental health professionals.

I would extol early-career professionals interested in branching into PET to follow the ethical rubric that I subscribe to: Tailor the testing to the presenting problems and administer the fewest tests necessary to shed light on such problems, adding tests if ambiguity persists. In my estimation, the “one-size-fits-all” approach, whereby a fixed, extensive battery of tests is employed regardless of the presenting problems leads to PET being overpriced, and the lack of parsimony here may raise ethical questions. Also, preserve a normative developmental perspective in the assessment of children, since delayed development in the socio-emotional realm, not uncommonly, is mistaken for psychopathology, and when formally documented in this manner, can stay in a child’s school record, with deleterious effects.