Test security must be maintained

By Stephen A. Ragusea, Psy.D.
March 14, 2014

Test security must be maintainedSo, here’s a scenario for you.

A lawyer refers a male patient to a psychologist for evaluation. The psychologist says to the patient, “Here, take this MMPI home with you, complete it and return it to me when you come in for your appointment tomorrow.”

See any ethical problems?

A few weeks later, the lawyer involved in the case calls me on the phone and asks, “Is that normal psychological practice?” I say, “Nope, that’s not typical and, in this situation, it’s very inappropriate. In most cases, sending home an MMPI is actually unethical.”

“Why is it unethical?” he asks. I explain that the validity of psychological tests is highly dependent upon starting with a naïve test subject, meaning that the person taking the test should not know about the testing tasks or what the questions are in advance of taking the test. If, for example, a subject knows the questions included in the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III in advance of testing, he or she might use the opportunity to learn all the correct answers, thereby artificially inflating his or her intelligence score.

For this reason, among others, psychologists are required to maintain test security. The subject is specifically addressed in the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct as Ethical Standard 9.11: 9.11. Maintaining Test Security.

“The term test materials refers to manuals, instruments, protocols, and test questions or stimuli and does not include test data as defined in Standard 9.04, Release of Test Data. Psychologists make reasonable efforts to maintain the integrity and security of test materials and other assessment techniques consistent with law and contractual obligations, and in a manner that permits adherence to this Ethics Code.”

What that means is that psychologists are obligated to protect test questions from being known by the general public. Obviously, if an MMPI goes home with a patient, the psychologist does not have the test under lock and key and the test’s “integrity and security” cannot be protected. Indeed, the test subject could share the test questions with his lawyer, family, neighbors and make copies for future reference. The psychologist would never know that such violations of test security took place. For this reason alone, tests should not be sent home with patients.

But, there are other reasons. For example, in this particular case, the lawyer called to tell me that the test subject, who was being tested as part of a court ordered evaluation, had become frustrated after the first few pages and had given the MMPI to his wife to complete for him. She did indeed finish the test for her husband and the psychologist had actually scored and interpreted what amounted to an MMPI family project! The attorney pointed out that this behavior might have reduced the value of the test data somewhat. I agreed and wished the psychologist had the wisdom to foresee the possible outcome.

What’s the moral of this true story? Psychological tests should not be sent home with patients. Indeed, we should always “make reasonable efforts to maintain the integrity and security of test materials.

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