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InPsych 2013 | Vol 35

December | Issue 6

Cover feature : Learning and Learning Disabilities in Schools

Changing attitudes to psychological testing in schools

Psychology and psychological testing have long had a close relationship with education. This has been particularly true with regards to learning and learning disorders. Where individual students have difficulties with learning, psychologists have often been involved, with psychometric testing being part of the process of helping to understand and then intervene. But the relationship between education and psychology has, in practice, had some interesting shifts over the years.

One key area where these shifts have been very noticeable is with regard to psycho-educational assessment. As noted, psychologists in schools and other settings have often been involved in individual or group assessment, for a variety of reasons. There have been times when the information gained from intelligence and achievement testing has been very important in education. For example, when selective entry public high schools were first set up (after the Second World War), psychological testing helped to determine which children could access these schools.

At other times the information gained from psychological assessments has been more problematic for school systems. I recall as a new school psychologist in Tasmania in the early 90s, meeting with an assistant principal at a primary school and with the manager of the school support services for an educational district, who was in charge of around 90 staff who provided a range of support services including school psychologists, speech pathologists and special education teachers.

The manager picked up a recent psycho-educational report (written by a predecessor) about a student at the school, glanced through it, and threw it on the table in front of me and said “that’s all a load of rubbish, isn’t it?” What he meant was that, in his opinion, the intelligence testing and achievement testing data contained in the report were either not valid, or not useful, or both. At that time formal testing was viewed with suspicion by many teachers and educators, and norm-referenced assessment of any sort was seen as unfair, irrelevant and unnecessary.

Part of this attitude flowed on from then dominant ideas in education which were very critical of comparing individuals with normative data, or of any suggestion that individuals could have real differences in cognitive ability or academic achievement. Stephen Jay Gould’s (in)famous book, The mismeasure of man (1981), which was very critical of the concept of IQ and its measurement, was influential for educators, perhaps well beyond the actual readership of Gould’s book. Despite the eventual rebuttal of that book (mainly by psychologists, see Carroll 1995), much damage was done in the intervening period. The end result was that psychological assessment was viewed with some suspicion, reflected in the comments I refer to above.

To be fair, psychologists in education did not always help their own cause by sometimes conducting rushed, cursory assessments of limited helpfulness. The humorous summation of ‘whisk in, WISC-R, whisk out’ (as in, pop into the school, conduct a brief Wechsler scale assessment and then leave) which reflected a brief assessment of a referred student yielding a full scale IQ score and little else, was sometimes frustrating for teachers seeking to find the best way to help a child with particular learning problems. The usefulness of a full-scale IQ score in helping to understand a child’s learning varies widely, depending on their range of cognitive abilities as well as many other factors.

But there was also sometimes an important philosophical divide between psychologists and educators. In that era school psychologists in Tasmania also had to be trained teachers. I recall often having misgivings about the scientific rigour of strategies and approaches that we were instructed in during teacher training, and that I observed in schools when I commenced work. For example, the ‘Whole Language’ movement on reading instruction (which was then dominant) continues to have a baleful effect on adult literacy rates, although the worst excesses of that approach are hopefully now behind us (see Bond et al., 2010).

Twenty years on, psychological assessment and the work of psychologists in education more generally has much to offer, at the level of the individual child, at the class level and also for whole school systems. All psychologists are benefiting from the wonderful increases in understanding which follow from developments in the cognitive neurosciences, and psychologists in schools are ideally placed to help translate this information into practical help for teachers and families. Improvements in psychological assessment techniques, for example, those which have been developed from the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model of cognition (and the intervention strategies which can then flow on from an approach like this), mean that psychologists are much better able to pinpoint the particular pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses that individual children have, and to work with teachers and other staff to tailor a program designed to help children learn to the best of their particular abilities. The ability to test different aspects of auditory processing, for example, can be very helpful in identifying and treating children who have dyslexia. In this way, our tools for working with children who have learning disorders have become much more sophisticated, and we are able to more effectively intervene to help children learn.

It has also been interesting to see how much greater convergence there is between different areas within psychology with regards to this model of cognition. The Cattell-Horn-Carroll model (see Schneider & McGrew, 2012) has been important in psycho-educational assessments for more than 15 years. This increasing prominence has also been reflected in greater interest in this approach within other areas of psychology. For example, a leading figure in CHC theory, the American educational psychologist Dr Kevin McGrew, was a keynote speaker at the APS College of Clinical Neuropsychologists conference in 2011.

Just as the assessment role of psychologists in schools has developed in line with scientific advances, at the same time there is now a much greater emphasis on good assessment data to help school staff, parents and educational systems to understand the progress that schools and students are making. In this respect, NAPLAN has (with mixed outcomes) focused more attention on the psychology of learning as well as on accurate data. All of these trends suggest the possibility of an increasing role for psychologists in schools, and this is without considering the very important mental health role also played by school psychologists.

As such, I would hope that psychologists entering educational settings would not now be subject to the sort of ill-informed and unscientific attacks on their practice that used to be routine 20 years ago. By sticking closely to the science and (where necessary) rebutting poor science and practice, psychologists have the opportunity to be increasingly important across learning and learning disorders in Australian schools.

APS support for psychologists working in schools

The APS, reflecting the large group of members who work in schools and other educational settings, supports several member groups that focus on learning and learning disorders within the broader organisation. I write as the Chair of the APS College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists (CEDP), and we are currently celebrating our 30th anniversary as a College, although in one form or another groups representing educational psychology have been part of the APS since its inception. The CEDP celebrated its 30th birthday with a dinner in Melbourne in November this year, which allowed us to acknowledge the many advances that have accompanied the life of the College. We look forward to the next 30 years!

There is also the APS Psychologists in Schools Reference Group, which provides guidance and support for all psychologists who work in schools, and the APS Psychologists in Schools Advisor based in the National Office. This part-time position allows a senior school psychologist to inform and advocate for this area of our profession. Dr Monica Thielking (a previous advisor) and Darren Stops (currently in the role) have both been active in support of this, and particularly good at raising the profile of school psychology in the media. The APS advisors have developed a number of resources for APS members working in schools (see boxed information).

More recently, the APS Psychologists in Schools Interest Group has been set up, and this offers another broader forum for support and professional development. The Interest Group also recognises the breadth of psychologists working in schools, with members of the Counselling or Clinical Colleges increasingly working as school psychologists. Of course, school psychology has also been an area where psychologists could receive training under the 4+2 pathway, although recent changes to the requirements under the Psychology Board of Australia have made this more difficult for many school systems to support. The College and the Interest Group work closely with each other, and with the Reference Group, to further the aims of all psychologists who work in education.

APS resources for school psychologists
  • APS register of school psychologist supervisors
  • Ethical guidelines for working with young people
  • Framework for the effective delivery of school psychological services
  • School psychologist position description template
  • The management of client privacy and confidentiality in school settings guidelines
  • Summary of mandatory reporting requirements for psychologists by State/Territory
  • Tip sheets and position papers on: educational and psychological assessments; psychological interventions; behavioural management; parenting and family issues; emergency and critical incident management; environment
  • KidsMatter resources
  • External websites and other resources of interest
All resources can be accessed at www.psychology.org.au/practitioner/resources/schools/

The author can be contacted at paul@launcestontherapyclinic.com.au


  • Bond, J., Coltheart, M., Connell, T., Firth, N., Hardy, M., et al. (2010). Helping people with dyslexia: a national action agenda. Report to the Hon Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, from the Dyslexia Working Party.
  • Carroll, J. B. (1995). Reflections on Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. Intelligence, 21, 121-134.
  • Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
  • Schneider, J. & McGrew, K. (2012). The Cattell-Horn-Carroll model of intelligence. In D. Flanagan and P. Harrison (Eds.), Contemporary Intellectual Assessment: Theories, Tests, and Issues (3rd edition; pp 99-104). New York: Guildford.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2013. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.