Act more like an idiot — you idiot!

So far what I’ve learnt from Psychological Tests has a lot to do with test design, test implementation, problems with testing, test validity and reliability, the list goes on… but all of this stuff doesn’t really have to do with what is at the core of psychological testing: people! Without subjects, any test, no matter how cleverly designed it is, is completely irrelevant. Furthermore, as anyone who has read even a few of our class’ blog submissions can attest to, psychological tests have real world consequences, particularly for those tested. And so, on that very homiletic note, I’d like to share a story of my own relating to the real world of psychological testing.

I’m the proud older sister of one seventeen-year-old brother — a kid with outstanding charm and humour who prefers video gaming to giving a shit about the world (hallmark teenage apathy), but who, nonetheless, I have great faith in. A bright kid, but historically speaking, he’s never been the most “academically inclined.” He did well in class but as soon as it came time to take tests he performed poorly on account of not finishing. This pattern of doing well then falling behind every time he took a test was like climbing a mountain that actively fought back (call to mind the epic battle between the stone giants encountered by Bilbo + crew as they attempted to cross the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit — see image below).

Because its awesome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XORMBIm7DX8

My mother says she’s been saying my brother needs to be tested for a learning disability since he was in Grade 5. According to her, the teachers were always reluctant to see the value in this, saying things like “He just needs to focus better” or “He needs to learn time management skills.” But as the saying goes, mother knows best. Finally, nearly ten years later and through much scratching and clawing at the door of the high school administrator’s office, they agreed to cooperate in allowing him to “get tested.”

Of course, the school board does employ school psychologists, but unless they didn’t mind waiting until my brother is thirty, my parents had to go through an external testing facility. In my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, there are two school psychologists — one private firm and another operating through Queen’s University. The private psychologist is much more expensive, and having to pay for this on their own dime, my parents opted to go with what’s behind door number two. Of course, a cheaper bill means a longer waiting list, on which my brother’s name remained until he was finally called in for testing nine months later (which was miraculously quick as the original estimated wait time was 1–1.5 years).

Now, seeing how I wasn’t present, I’m relaying this information second hand, but my brother was put through several batteries of tests involving processing speed, memory, IQ, etc. A month later my family was called in for the results… drum roll please… the tests were negative. My brother does not in fact have a learning disability, though the psychologist pointed to areas where my brother fell in the lower percentiles, including processing speed (which explains why he takes so long to write tests). So this is good right? Well, yes. The results permitted my brother to get extra time and accommodation on exams — and through this measure his grades have skyrocketed. Whereas before he failed exams because he hadn’t finished whole sections of the test, now he gets A’s because he simply has the time to finish.

So what’s the problem? Well, because his results don’t constitute an “official diagnosis” these accommodations won’t extend into postsecondary. At this point in the story, my father’s report of the events is coloured with a certain deep shade of rage that is very unflattering for the psychologist. He says that the psychologist said that my brother didn’t need to go to university — or as he puts it “He could always be a truck driver!” Despite being rather nasty, my father’s malice is understandable — he is scared at the thought of his son being left to fend for himself beyond high school. My mother, proactive as can be, has been in communication with the the schools my brother is applying to now (as he’s graduating this year) about what sort of accommodation they can provide him given the circumstances. There seems to be some hope for the future coming from their responses, but it certainly isn’t the best possible outcome.

And the underlying theme, which seems to come up from both my parents is that they both would opt for retesting if given the chance (and the funding). They don’t seem to think these tests were neither valid nor reliable in determining the true nature of my brother’s scholarly dilemmas — and I can’t help but stand on the fence. On one hand, as a student of psychology, I want to believe that these tests should be solid and stand the test of replication. On the other, I am also on the side of retesting as the consequences of the test are grave enough to demand such action.

I’m sure the thought has run through each of my family member’s head that had my brother only been, or at least acted, stupider he could have “passed the test” and potentially this blog would be a lot different. Although it begs the question — shouldn’t it be a positive thing that one isn’t “disabled?” Before this experience I would have said yes. But what if the lack of support this judgement constitutes means that my brother’s future may be more difficult than it need be? What is the criterion or cut off point in judging the degree of someone’s impairment? And what is a seemingly arbitrary statistical average really to tell you about the needs of a genuine, living-breathing-thinking, human being? These questions are all beyond the scope of this already too long blog post, and really what I am in part seeking to answer in taking this very course. Until I have the answers to these intensely nuanced questions, my family and I will continue to hold our breath collectively and wait and see how my brother’s future unfolds.

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