October 20, 2011

More on test administration issues in Twilight Rapist case

Alan Cohen, the attorney in the Billy Joe Harris case that I blogged about last week, wrote to clarify the unusual test administration procedures of psychiatrist Colin Ross, who testified for the defense. Because his letter (which he posted at my Psychology Today blog, Witness) is of general interest to forensic psychology, I re-post it here, along with my response:

Mr. Cohen wrote:
I found your article of interest and hope this will create a forum for further discussion on DID and its use in the courtroom setting.

The issue of my administering the examination to my client took on a sinister spin from the way it was interpreted by Dr. [Robert] Barden when in fact it was nothing more then my hand-carrying it to the jail and passing the sealed envelope into the hand of a deputy who then gave it to my client. The transaction took less then a minute. I remained in an attorney booth with my client who spent four hours answering the self-administered questions. When he completed the exam he placed the results in an envelope and sealed it. He then handed the envelope to a deputy who then gave it to me. That transaction took less then a minute.

I personally carried the test to the jail so that the contents would not be examined by either the sheriffs department or the prosecutors office since Mr. Harris was under extremely tight surveillance and the results of the test would/could form the basis of our defense. I could not jeopardize the results of the exam being compromised by falling into the "wrong hands."

* * * * *

Mr. Cohen,

Thanks for writing to clarify the circumstances of the test administration. I have seen other cases in which psychologists have had third parties administer psychological tests, or have even given prisoners tests to fill out in their spare time and return at their leisure. While the intermediary who delivers the test is not doing anything sinister, from the standpoint of professional ethics and practice there are several problems with such practices.

First and foremost, if a test is standardized -- that is, if it has norms to which an individual is being compared -- then such procedures violate the standardized administration and may invalidate the results.

Second, such procedures violate test security.

Third, they prevent the expert from ensuring the adequacy of testing conditions, or of observing the individual as he performs the tasks; observation by skilled examiners can be an important component of one's ultimate opinions. Relatedly, sitting with the test-taker allows the examiner to assess for adequate comprehension, and answer any questions that may come up.

When Dr. Barden testified that it was unethical for the attorney to administer the tests, he was likely referring to the Ethics Code for psychologists, as well as the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing ("The Standards") promulgated by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education.

As noted in the introduction to the Standards, which apply to everyone who administers, scores and interprets psychological or educational tests, regardless of whether they are a psychologist:
The improper use of tests can cause considerable harm to test takers and other parties affected by test-based decisions. The intent of the Standards is to promote the sound and ethical use of tests and to provide a basis for evaluating the quality of testing practices. 
Collectively, the Ethics Code and the Standards require that:
  • Test administrators receive proper training (Ethics Code 9.07; Standards 12.8)
  • Tests not be administered by unqualified persons (Ethics Code 9.07; Standards 12.8)
  • Examinees receive proper informed consent (Ethics Code 9.03; Standards 12.10)
  • Test data be kept confidential and secure (Ethics Code 9.04; Standards 12.11)
  • Assessment techniques be protected from disclosure to the extent permitted by law (Ethics Code 9.11; Standards 12.11) 
Again, I appreciate your taking the time to write.

NOTE: After I posted this exchange, the testifying psychiatrist, Colin A. Ross, posted a comment at my Psychology Today blog. He provided more information about the screening tests for dissociation and why they were administered as they were. He also offered his opinion on the validity of Dissociative Identity Disorder. His comment can be viewed HERE. Please feel free to join in the discussion, either here or (preferably) at my Witness blog, where the conversation began.

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