Counseling Psychology Assessments

Counseling PsychologyCounseling psychology is a developmentally oriented specialty that emphasizes the integration and informed application of principles derived from basic psycholog­ical sciences such as differential, vocational, developmental, and social psychology. The practice of counseling psychology overlaps with that of clinical, industrial-organizational, management, and school psychology, making it one of the broadest and most integrative specialties in psychology.

Scientific Foundations of Counseling Psychology

Differential psychology, the study of the nature and extent of individual and group variability, and of the factors that determine or affect these differences, is one of two formative progenitors of counseling psychology. The objectives of differential psychology are to document individual differences in human attributes such as intelligence, personality, interests, and values that occur as a function of age, gender, race, and social class, and to identify the factors that contribute to those differences. Counseling psychologists share differential psychology’s philosophical belief in the uniqueness of each person and this provides the philosophical rationale that guides their use of assessment techniques. In practice, counseling psychologists try to gain an understanding of how each individual thinks, feels, and acts, and their assessment practices cover the entire range of human cognitive, conative, and affective attributes.

As an applied specialty, counseling psychology evolved from the vocational guidance movement that began in the early 1900s, and the study of the effects of work on the individual continues to be an important focus of counseling psychology. Plato’s notion that people should be matched to occupational environments to achieve optimal work outcomes was elaborated by Frank Parsons (1909) during the first decade of the twentieth century, and further developed by the Minnesota Employment Stabilization Research Institute during the depression of the 1930s. The person-environment it philosophy is expressed most completely in Lloyd H. Lofquist and Rene V. Dawis’s (1969) theory of work adjustment, which explains how matching individuals and occupational environments leads to better productivity, more satisfied workers, and job stability.

Counseling psychologists are unique among the psychological specialties in the attention they give to the measurement of vocationally relevant attributes of the individual (e.g., aptitudes, abilities, and interests) and the occupation (e.g., the demands and benefits of the job). Counseling psychology emphasizes the informed application of principles derived from basic scientific discoveries about the nature of work and of people’s relations to work. John Holland’s theory that there are six basic personality types and occupational environments—realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional—is used almost universally by counseling psychologists to organize information about occupational environments and vocational interests. Dale Prediger’s (1982) demonstration that occupational environments differ in the extent to which they require interactions with people as opposed to things, and with data as opposed to ideas, is another heuristic that counseling psychologists use to organize knowledge about the relations between individuals and their work.

An appreciation of the relevance of developmental psychology to the discipline of counseling psychology began to emerge at mid-century. Anne Roe’s (1956) theory of the effects of parent-child interactions on vocational choice, Donald Super’s (1955) theory of the developmental progression of careers, and Carl Rogers’s (1942) theory of personality development were instrumental in awakening counseling psychologists to the importance of developmental theory and research, and in expanding the focus of counseling psychology. An emphasis on growth, development, and prevention are core values of the specialty of counseling psychology, and many of the assessment and intervention practices of counseling psychology are intended to facilitate normal developmental processes.

Stanley Strong’s (1968) interpretation of the counseling interview in terms of elemental social-cognitive processes made salient the status of counseling psychology as a form of applied social psychology. The constructs investigated by social psychologists are often the focus of counseling psychology assessment and intervention practices. Counseling psychology research and practice is concerned with the influence of social-cognitive processes on people’s attitudes (e.g., in-group bias), perceptions (e.g., fundamental attribution error and unrealistic optimism), decision making (judgmental overconfidence and illusory correlation), and the effects of group processes on individual behavior (e.g., conformity, obedience, and social facilitation).

Diversity of Counseling Psychology Practice

Counseling psychologists provide services to a diverse array of clients, many of whom also are served by clinical. industrial-organizational. management, and school psychologists. Individual counseling psychologists typically specialize in one area of practice and use assessment techniques that have their greatest applicability in that area.

The work activities of many counseling and clinical psychologists are largely indistinguishable. Members of both specialties engage in psychotherapy with clients who range from the severely and chronically impaired to those suffering from situationally and developmentally mediated difficulties. The developmental orientation of counseling psychologists distinguishes their work most clearly from that of clinical psychologists and psychoanalysts. Counseling psychologists, child-clinical psychologists, and school psychologists also work extensively with children and adolescents. School psychologists work primarily in educational settings with teachers, administrators, and social workers, and they often limit their work with children to assessment. Counseling psychologists work with children and adolescents in the full range of service settings and their work typically emphasizes the use of assessment procedures as a prelude to initiating developmentally oriented interventions.

Other counseling psychologists specialize in working with clients who are similar to those served by industrial-organizational and management psychologists. Both counseling psychologists and human services personnel provide interventions such as individual counseling, individual psychological testing, career planning workshops, organizational assessment programs, formal training programs. Consultation, mentoring, and developmental programs for special target groups (e.g., high-potential. terminated. female. and minority employees; supervisors; employed spouses; and parents l. Industrial-organizational and management psychologists often view issues and concerns from an organizational perspective. however. and their interventions are intended to help organizations function more effectively. In contrast, counseling psychologists are concerned about the functioning and development of the individual.

Counseling Psychology Assessment Practices

The assessment practices of counseling psychologists and related specialists have been the focus of numerous studies. Psychologists have surveyed professors who teach graduate level assessment classes, and studied the assessment practices of psychologists and predoctoral interns employed in community mental health agencies; medical. Veteran’s Administration, and psychiatric hospitals; internship sites that provide adult or adolescent inpatient services; counseling centers; and centers for the developmentally disabled. However, much of this research has included psychologists from multiple specialties and findings have been reported only for the aggregate group, thereby obscuring any differences in the assessment practices of the psychological specialties. Furthermore, the accuracy of the few surveys that have focused exclusively on the assessment practices of counseling psychologists is suspect.

Evolution of Counseling Specialties

Counseling psychology expanded into new settings to treat previously undeserved clients during the 1980s and 1990s, and this evolution of the specialty has not yet run its course. For these reasons, it is not possible to describe the present assessment practices of counseling psychologists with absolute precision, despite the continuing stream of research on this issue.

Time Allocated to Assessment and Diagnosis

Psychological assessment is an important activity for most counseling psychologists, regardless of the type of setting in which they work or the type of clientele they serve. A national survey of the work activities of members of the American Psychological Association Division of Counseling Psychology revealed that most of these counseling psychologists collected data about their clients (80.3%) and identified problems and made diagnoses (76.6%). Close to 40% of the time these counseling psychologists spent in counseling activities (and over 20% of their total professional time) was devoted to assessment and diagnosis. Results from surveys consistently confirm that close to 20% of counseling psychologists’ total professional time is devoted to assessment activities.

Assessment Procedures Used by Counseling Psychologists

Testing and assessment are not the same; much psychological assessment does not involve the formal use of objective or projective techniques. More than 80% of counseling psychologists report that they use interviews and observation to collect data about clients. Counseling psychologists regard using the interview as an assessment technique as central to their professional identity and they believe that is one of their most important job functions.

The tests used most frequently by counseling psychologists include objective and projective personality tests, individually administered tests of cognitive functioning, vocational interest tests, and brief scales to assess specific symptomology. The specific assessment procedures used by counseling psychologists vary somewhat as a function of the setting, client characteristics, and reason for seeking services. Projective techniques are used with greater frequency in psychiatric settings whereas interest, aptitude, and objective personality tests are used more frequently in counseling and community mental health centers. Some tests are designed for use with specific age ranges, so counseling psychologists who work with adult clients use tests that are different from the tests used by those who work with children and adolescents.

Overall, the tests that are most frequently used by counseling psychologists to measure cognitive functioning are the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III (WAIS-III). Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-III (WISC-III), and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Fourth Edition (SB), The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) is the most widely used test for objective personality assessment. The Bender-Gestalt Visual-Motor Test (Bender-Gestalt) and various forms of the Draw-A-Person Test (DAP) provide projective assessments of personality and cognitive functioning, The most frequently used projective personality tests are the Rorschach Inkblot Test (Rorschach), Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), various forms of the Sentence Completion Tests (SCT), and the House-Tree-Person test (HTP), Although not ranked in the top 10 in terms of overall usage, university professors strongly advise counseling psychology students to learn to use the Strong Interest Inventory (SII), a vocational interest test, in addition to the MMPI-2 and WAIS-III, In keeping with the broad integrative nature of the specialty, counseling psychologists use a diverse array of instruments.

Many service agencies use a standard assessment battery with all who seek services. This practice insures that all clients will have the benefit of a comprehensive assessment program. and it establishes a uniform set of instruments on which the staff psychologists are expected to develop proficiency. The typical standard assessment battery includes both objective and projective tests to assess personality and cognitive functioning. The tests most commonly included in the standard assessment battery are the WAIS-III, WISC-III, MMPI-2, Rorschach, TAT, Bender-Gestalt. Figure Drawings, and SCT.

In addition to the tests mentioned above, counseling psychologists use the SIl, Kuder Occupational Interest Inventory (KOIS), and Self-Directed Search (SDS) to assess vocational interests. They also have some familiarity with the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the Differential Aptitude Test (DAT), and the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB) which assess a broad sample of school and work-related aptitudes.

Other tests widely used by counseling psychologists are the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) to assess cognitive functioning, the Chil­dren’s Apperception Test (CAT), a projective test of personality, and the Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF), California Psychological Inventory (CPI), and Edwards Personal Preference Schedule (EPPS), which are objective personality tests. Brief scales most commonly used for assessing specific symptomology are the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and Symptom Check List-90 (SCL-90). The assessment of neuropsychological functioning has not been a common work activity of counseling psychologists, but recently counseling psychologists have begun to develop expertise in that area. The tests most frequently used to assess neuropsychological functioning are the

Halstead-Reitan Neuropsychological Battery, the Wechsler Memory Test, Benton Visual Relation Test, and Luria Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery.

Importance of Assessment to Professional Identity

The percentage of counseling psychologists who identify testing and measurement as their primary area of interest has declined since the mid-1970s, but counseling psychologists still rate assessment and diagnosis activities as important aspects of their work and as central to their professional identity. Work activities that are rated as important for defining the professional role of the counseling psychologist include collecting data about clients, using interviews and observations, problem identification and diagnosis, and using objective personality inventories, individual intelligence tests, vocational interest inventories, and aptitude tests. Those same work activities plus projective techniques are rated by counseling psychologists as central to their professional identity.

Unique Assessment Practices of Counseling Psychologists

Counseling psychologists are relatively unique in their use of tests to assess vocational and college major interests and in their use of information about school- and work-related aptitudes. This is illustrated by a 1980s survey, which gives the percentage of their practice that counseling psychologists devoted to specific testing activities: vocational and career (8.4%), diagnosing psychopathology (4.6%), intellectual assessment (4.3%), determining academic status (1.2%), and determining organicity (1.1%). Counseling psychologists give greater emphasis to vocational assessment and they make less use of projective tests than clinical psychologists do.

The percentage of counseling psychologists who reported using objective personality inventories (67%), occupational information (64%), vocational interest inventories (62%), individual intelligence tests (57%), aptitude tests (52%), and projective techniques (46%) in their work also illustrates their greater concern about educational and career development issues. Nevertheless, the practice of counseling psychology is broad. Counseling psychologists report that they administer an average of 7.5 objective tests and 1.8 projective tests a week; they administer objective tests to 35.9% of their clients and projective tests to 11.4%. The most frequently used tests in counseling centers, staffed more frequently by counseling psychologists than other specialists, include the SII, MMPI-2, EPPS, SCT, KOIS, Rorschach, WAIS-III, and DAT.

Counseling psychologists’ emphasis on identifying the psychological attributes of work environments and integrating this information into their practice is relatively unique among the applied specialties of psychology. Counseling psychologists have pioneered the development of taxonomic systems for organizing information about vocational interests and occupational environments. Roe’s (1956) theory-based classification of occupations into eight interest/personality groups, each of which was further divided into six levels of complexity, was the forerunner to Holland’s Occupational Classification (HOC) system. Lofquist and Dawis’s (1969) empirical description of the psycholog­ical benefits provided by occupational environments demonstrated the feasibility and advantages of classifying occupations on the basis of their effects on people. The HOC system, which classifies occupations in terms of vocational interests and level of complexity, emphasized the relation between personality and vocational interests, and it revolutionized the way in which interest test results are organized and presented. Holland’s theory has achieved widespread acceptance and influenced research in personality psychology as well as theory, research, and practice in counseling psychology.

Another relatively unique assessment practice of counseling psychology is the self-administering, self-scoring, self-interpreting test. Holland pioneered this assessment procedure with his SDS, a vocational interest inventory. The rationale underlying self-interpreting tests such as the SDS is that many persons need reliable and valid information rather than counseling or psychotherapy. The self-interpreting test is intended to provide them with the information they need without involving a relatively high-priced psychological specialist. The idea underlying the self-interpreting test has now been incorporated into computer-based guidance programs such as SIGI. The use of self-interpreting tests is still largely confined to the vocational psychology sub-specialty of counseling psychology, but some tests such as the Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R) have developed self-interpreting forms and other interests tests such as the Campbell Interest and Skills Survey (CISS) are developing self-interpreting forms.

Unresolved Issues in Counseling Psychology

Careers in PsychologyPurpose of Assessment

Investigating the practical utility of assessment procedures and their potential improvement requires a careful specification of the purposes of the assessment procedure. Actually, this issue is given scant attention by the discipline, but most counseling psychologists appear to use assessment procedures for one of three purposes. One purpose is to obtain information for making predictions. For example, counseling psychologists use assessment procedures to obtain diagnostic information that they can use in deciding how to work effectively with their clients, or to obtain predictive information that they can use in advising a client about future courses of action. Counseling psychologists also use assessment procedures to obtain descriptive information which they believe will help them understand their client better. Prediction is inherent as a secondary objective in this purpose. A third potential application is to use assessment procedures as an intervention. For example, counseling psychologists sometimes interpret the results of the assessment procedure to their client to increase their insight into or sensitivity to important developmental issues and to stimulate their thinking about those issues.

The reasons university professors give when asked why students need to learn to use psychological tests provides a different perspective that illustrates the influence of guild issues on the discipline. University professors gave approximately equal ratings to professional reasons (i.e., provides information about personality structure, saves the therapist time. enables accurate behavior prediction. and increases client-therapist rapport) and guild concerns (i.e., satisfies legal requirements, provides a specialty. satisfies institutional demands, and enhances therapist prestige).

Each of these objectives requires that counseling psychologists be able to extract accurate information from their assessment procedures, draw accurate inferences from that information, and accurately convey the results to their clients in a manner that they can understand. There is scant evidence documenting the ability of counseling psychologists to satisfy these requirements.

Interview as Assessment Technique

The interview is the assessment technique most widely used by counseling psychologists, but psychometric assessment devices have numerous advantages over the interview. Tests possess a wealth of experience (that is incorporated into the norm groups) and they are not overly influenced by unusual or graphic cases. When used with a client, tests can be thought of as conducting a standard interview with the client, after which they report descriptive information (scores) having an approximately known level of reliability. The test scores suggest inferences having an approximately known validity. In contrast, counseling psychologists take years to amass the experience the test possesses at the beginning, conduct semistandard interviews, obtain descriptive information having an unknown reliability, draw inferences having an unknown validity (that is undoubtedly lower than the validity of the inferences drawn by the tests), and often have a backlog of clients waiting to be seen. Furthermore, the reliability and validity of tests is subjected to repeated scrutiny by both supporters and critics while the reliability and validity of the interview as an assessment device is virtually never examined.

The continued reliance of counseling psychologists on the interview as an assessment technique is undoubtedly due to three factors. First, it is not practical to use a test for everything the psychologist needs to know. Many psychologists use tests to obtain a significant part of the information they need and they use the interview to obtain information about the overall context into which the test information fits. In addition, most counseling psychologists pride themselves on being skillful interviewers, and the use of the interview to obtain diagnostic information is central to the professional identity of most counseling psychologists. Finally, while most counseling psychologists regard tests as useful but limited tools, they genuinely enjoy working with people.

Making Predictions from Tests

In 1954, Paul Meehl called attention to the fact that trained therapists are not as accurate in making predictions from tests as a statistical formula. This finding was met with considerable resistance, and today it is largely ignored by practicing therapists. To date 136 research studies have compared the ability of trained therapists to predict important future behaviors of an individual using both test and non-test information with the accuracy of a statistical formula. The statistical formula is almost always more accurate. This phenomenon is attributable to several of the factors already mentioned: Individual therapists are slow to amass experience, are prone to forget some cases, give too much weight to graphic cases, are unable to determine the proper weight to give various factors, and are likely to be influenced by irrelevant considerations.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the superiority of actuarial predictions, the use of test information in clinical practice is virtually unchanged since the first publication of Meehl’s book. A continuing challenge to counseling psychologists is to learn how to better integrate the results of assessment procedures into their clinical practice. The time is propitious for a careful examination of this issue, given the national concern about the cost effectiveness of mental health services, and the resulting movement toward managed care.

Effects of Test Interpretation

Leo Goldman cautioned in 1961 that counseling psychologists may not be very effective in interpreting test information, but counseling psychologists have largely ignored this warning. Recently, Howard E. A. Tinsley and Serena Chu reviewed 65 studies that directly investigated test interpretation outcomes. Most of the research has focused on the interpretation of aptitude and ability tests; virtually no research has examined the interpretation of vocational interest tests or the use of tests in individual psychotherapy, couples counseling, family counseling, substance abuse counseling, or any of the many other specialty areas in which counseling psychologists function. They found that few studies have been competently done or adequately reported, and that the research is fraught with methodological weaknesses (e.g.. flawed criteria, use of an immediate follow-up. lack of random assignment, and lack of a control group). Consequently, they concluded that there is no coherent body of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of test interpretation as an intervention.

The research evidence provides tenuous support for only three conclusions: that the use of visual aids improves the effectiveness of test interpretation, that group test interpretation methods are as effective as individual test interpretation methods, and that the individual test interpretation interview is preferred to a group test interpretation by those receiving the interpretation. However, cost analyses reveal that individual interpretations are six times more costly than group interpretations. Given the greater cost and lack of demonstrated superiority of the individual test interpretation, there appears to be no rational basis for providing individual test interpretations in situations where group test interpretations are feasible.

A major innovation of the last three decades has been the development of self-interpreting interest inventories such as the SDS and CISS. Only seven investigations have evaluated the effectiveness of self-interpretation. The paucity of research represents a rather alarming indifference on the part of the discipline to the need to evaluate this important innovation in test interpretation. Typically, no differences among the modes of test interpretation were found.

Caveat Emptor

Despite the centrality of assessment to the work and professional identity of counseling psychologists, the incremental utility of assessment in counseling has not been established. Assessment practices rest more on folklore and assumptions of utility than on empirically demonstrated benefits. Psychology has given painstaking attention to the development of procedures for evaluating the reliability and validity of measuring instruments (i.e., tests), and training in the use of assessment devices is required for all counseling psychologists. However, insufficient attention has been given to the reliability and validity of the assessment practices of counseling psychologists. In medicine, the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to insist that the efficacy of drugs be demonstrated in rigorously controlled research studies and that the potential side-effects of the drug are evaluated before the drug is approved for use in patient care. Counseling psychology needs to adopt an analogous procedure for evaluating the efficacy of assessment techniques and practices.


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