Psychometrics – and why they should not be used

Problems with IQ and Psychometric Assessment


When diagnosing a child’s learning difficulties, the IQ test and other forms of Psychometric Assessment continue to be used across the UK and elsewhere as an indication of a child’s ‘intelligence’ and continue to be a key factor in special school placement.


Colin Newton

Inclusive Educational Psychologist


Inclusive Solutions



We have to provide an IQ score so that the CAMHS team can allocate their resources. They keep asking us…. (Principal Educational Psychologist – Unnamed UK Local Authority) 

How sad that what follows still needs to be written in 2019! Perhaps we all need a little reminder…

The story so far…

Intelligence testing began in earnest in France, when in 1904 psychologist Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to find a method to differentiate between children who were ‘intellectually normal and those who were inferior’. The purpose was to put the latter into special schools where they would receive more individual attention. In this way the disruption they caused in the education of intellectually normal children could be avoided. Sound a familiar argument?

Such thinking was a natural development from Darwinism and the Eugenics movement that dates back to Sir Francis Galton in 1869 that famous scientific polymath who promoted the idea that for society to prosper the ‘weakest’ should not be allowed to have babies, as this would affect the genetic stock of future generations. He and his many followers we contemptuous of any impact education might have on raising the achievement of the ‘least able’(Thomas and Loxley, 2007). 

Binet’s work led to the development of the Binet Scale, also known as the Simon-Binet Scale in recognition of Theophile Simon’s assistance in its development. It constituted a revolutionary approach to the assessment of individual mental ability. However, Binet himself cautioned against misuse of the scale or misunderstanding of its implications. According to Binet, the scale was designed with a single purpose in mind; it was to serve as a guide to identify children in the schools who required special education. Its intention was not to be used as “a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth.” Binet also noted that “the scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”

Since, according to Binet, intelligence could not be described as a single score, the use of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) (a notion coined by Terman in America in 1916) as a definite statement of a child’s intellectual capability would be a serious mistake. In addition, Binet feared that IQ measurement would be used to condemn a child to a permanent “condition” of stupidity, thereby negatively affecting his or her education and livelihood:

Some recent thinkers…[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing. (Binet)

Binet’s scale had a profound impact on educational development in the UK, the United States and elsewhere. However, the American and UK educators and psychologists who championed and utilised the scale and its revisions failed to heed Binet’s caveats concerning its limitations. Soon intelligence testing assumed an importance and respectability way out of proportion to its actual value.

When Cyril Burt was appointed as the first educational psychologist for London in 1913 he was much less cautious than Binet when it came to applying mental quotients. A Social Darwinist he was enthusiastic and deeply convinced of the genetic basis of intelligence. He was energetic, wrote a lot, was fond of psychometrics and was committed to the idea of inherited intelligence. All this gave great stimulus to a move towards a segregated education system based on categorisation of children.

Belief in the importance of intelligence and in the tests that purportedly measured it gave rise to a selective and segregative education system, following the high profile work of some influential educational psychologists. … And this kind of thought is still revered especially in considering children’s failure at school. (Thomas and Loxley, 2007)

Burt’s reputation is now linked to his fraudulent invention of data about inherited intelligence based on non-existent twin studies but at the time his influence was enormous. 

Hey Miss wasn’t Cyril Burt a eugenicist and didn’t he use fraudulent data on twins?

When medical officers were largely responsible for selecting pupils for special schools in the UK the most single important item in the selection process was the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.

Despite such decisions being now a result of an Education and Health Care Plan in which parents wishes and views are significant, psychometric tools are still being used by significant numbers of educational psychologists across the UK. These tools have been revised and modernised and typically include tests such as the WISC-R and the BAS (British Ability Scales) in their updated forms but their roots and core constructs remain unaltered.

This is surprising as the shortcomings of such tools have been long known and debated among educational psychologists, in the educational establishment and beyond. Yet scores and test results are still demanded particularly around those for whom measurement is the most difficult. There is a wealth of literature that is critical of the role and negative impact of IQ testing (Leyden, 1978, Lokke et. al, 1997; Leadbetter, 2005, Farrell and Venables, 2008) and yet  educational psychologists still spend the bulk of their time undertaking formal special education evaluations using psychometric assessment including IQ tests (Shapiro et al., 2004 and Farrell and Venables, 2009).

Hey Miss why do educational psychologists still use psychometrics when they are based on flawed science?


Main Problems

“For some thirty years a few clear sighted professionals have been telling us that normal, abnormal, retarded, autistic, etc., are political, social, cultural notions rather than reflections of some objective, clearly discernible reality.  They have been saying that like intelligence, mental retardation is not a ‘thing’ at all.”  – Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary (1994)

Test scores are appealing in the messy and complex world of children’s learning and in the demanding and  oppressive world in which many educational professionals find themselves in 2000s. They offer the immediate and seductive appeal of a spuriously precise, defined result, satisfying to the assessor but telling virtually nothing useful about the child.

Why are IQ and other forms of psychometric assessment so inappropriate for understanding the learning of disabled children? Why so problematic? 

Read on for the main reasons:

  • Culturally Unfair. The tests, as they have been devised, constructed and used in the UK and the United States, have been primarily designed for use among white, middle-class children. The tests are both unfair and invalid when used on children from different cultural backgrounds. Researchers became aware of the problem that tests were in fact culturally derived and represented the ideas, attitudes and the linguistic concepts of the people who made them and for whom they were intended. Attempts to create tests that are culturally neutral have proved unsuccessful, and there has not been any way found to develop a test that does not penalise some cultural groups while rewarding others.

Hey Miss why would a test created on white middle class children work for assessing my friend from Somalia? Surely his language and experiences are just so different to make generalizing impossible?


The tests have been challenged in court for being racially and culturally biased, but there have been no definitive rulings on them. In a California case, Larry P. vs. Riles (1978), the court ruled that use of the tests was discriminatory; but two years later in an Illinois case, Pase vs. Hannon, it was decided that the tests were not culturally biased and could be used to place children in special education courses.

Hey Miss aren’t these tests discriminatory?

The concern over cultural bias raised a related issue among critics: what is actually measured by the tests? The critics assert that mental abilities and potential are gauged by simply adding up correct answers. This procedure necessarily ignores how a child has arrived at the answers. Hence, the tests only measure the products of intelligence, without considering the processes by which the intelligence works. This means, the critics assert, that wrong answers would indicate a lower intelligence and a lessened potential; but research has demonstrated that the child who comes up with a wrong answer may understand as much about a problem as the one who gives the correct answer, perhaps by guessing. Furthermore, the complexity of skills and intelligence may be as great in a different cultural group, but test questions may need to be approached in another way because of differences in cultural background.

So much caution has to be present when administering and interpreting such assessment processes with different cultural groups that major validity questions are raised on every occasion. So why do it?

Hey Miss is there really such a thing as potential? Do any of us have a fixed  ceiling of achievement? Shall I just pack up now miss?

  • Testing conditions and interpretation of test results influence the IQ measure and other psychometric outcomes.

It has been shown that the outcome of any IQ test or psychometric procedure can depend on familiarity with the test materials  with the testing procedure and with the examiner.


‘No one would believe until I demonstrated it with controls that the IQ scores of pupils from an open air school could be lifted 10 points or so by thawing them out on the hot water pipes for half an hour before testing.’ (Head of Special School-quoted in Galloway and Goodwin, 1979)


Hey Miss I thought IQ points were meant to be fixed? How can radiator pipes make them go up?


Emotional tension and anxiety have also been indicated as factors affecting test scores. If being tested makes you highly anxious you will do worse and score lower.


Hey Miss doesn’t everyone do worse at tests when they are anxious and under pressure? Surely meeting some professional on your own is well scary?


In one US experiment asking 99 school psychologists to independently score an IQ test from identical records resulted in IQs ranging from 63 (mild learning difficulties) to 117 (gifted) for the same individual indicating the critical role of tester attitudes, qualifications, and instructions on testing.


In addition, differences in the interpretation of test scores for entire groups have been documented (Ropers and Menzel, 2007).


Taken together, these observations point out several practical shortcomings when estimating IQ. So why try?


  • What is actually being measured? IQ tests are psychometric tests which only capture a few aspects of many different ‘intelligences’ or ‘systems of abilities’ omitting, for example, creative and practical intelligence, social, emotional and moral intelligence, and lateral and radiant thinking. Also, wisdom is not considered.  IQ tests are ‘static’ (that is, ‘What has the child learned?’) rather than ‘dynamic’ (that is, ‘What does the child achieve when given guided feedback?’  Basically IQ tests do not measure intelligence but are rather tests of a child’s attainments in certain class oriented and arbitrarily selected skills.


Hey Miss what skills do these test really measure – how do they know we haven’t tried some of those skills somewhere before?



  • Misuse of IQ assessment : A central criticism of intelligence tests is that psychologists and educators use these tests to distribute the limited resources of our society. These test results are used to provide so called rewards such as special classes for gifted students, admission to college, and employment or the opposite with special education placement. Those who do not qualify for these resources based on intelligence test scores may feel angry and as if the tests are denying them opportunities for success. Many negative predispositions have been initiated, aspirations lowered and self-fulfilling prophecies created.


Hey Miss if I do badly on one test are you saying I might end up in a special school?


Unfortunately, intelligence test scores have not only become associated with a person’s ability to perform certain tasks, but with self-worth. At worst such assessments have been used to wrongly place pupils from ethnic minority cultures in special schools and units. As far back as 1968 this was reported in ILEA and elsewhere where pupils from an African Caribbean background were particularly over represented in special education. 


Hey Miss is that why so many black kids are in the special unit?


The PLASC and School Level Annual School Census (2002) revealed that Black Caribbean pupils were over represented in Pupil Referral Units (5.8% compared with 1.5% in mainstream schools). Of even more relevance to the misuse of psychometrics     was the finding that 3.6% of Pakistani pupils were in Special Schools. Would this have anything to do with other factors such as pupils living in poverty? Or are some pupils still being assessed and doing badly on culturally biased psychometric tests?


Dyson and Gallannaugh (2008) have   considered the disproportional presence of students from different social groups in the UK special needs system. They argue that disproportionality is a reality in England, as in the United States, though it cannot be understood simply in relation to racial minorities. Nor, within a non-disability-based system, does it arise principally from the misidentification of students as having impairments. Instead, they argue, it reflects broad educational and social inequalities.


  • Single score too limited. Many intelligence tests produce a single intelligence score. This single score is inadequate in explaining the multidimensional aspects of human intelligences. Another problem with a single score is the fact that individuals with similar intelligence test scores can vary greatly in their expression of these talents. Two people can have identical scores on intelligence tests. Although both people have the same test score, one person may have obtained the score because of strong verbal skills while the other may have obtained the score because of strong skills in perceiving and organizing various tasks.

Hey Miss I am better than just than one number surely? I am more than that aren’t I?


  • Sub tests scores and reporting are still misleading. Numbers, standardised scores and percentiles all suggest a pseudo-scientific reality and fixed reality that some find attractive when faced with complex decision making, while others are left confused and mystified. Whose interests are served by such scores?

Hey Miss are these number scores just to make that report look scientific and so extra valid?


  • Testing only a sample of behaviours. Intelligence tests only measure a sample of behaviours or situations in which so called intelligent behavior is revealed. Most intelligence tests do not measure a person’s everyday functioning, social knowledge, mechanical skills, and/or creativity. The format of intelligence tests do not capture the complexity and immediacy of real-life situations. Intelligence tests have been criticized for their limited ability to predict non-test or nonacademic intellectual abilities.

Hey Miss they are only testing a few things – what about the amazing things some people can do away from school? My mate really good at Minecraft – do they test that?


  • Problems using IQ testing with disabled children and adults. Linda S. Siegel (1992), professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada proposes that we abandon the IQ test in the analysis of the disabled child.

According to most definitions — although they are not conclusive — intelligence is made up of the skills of logical reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking, and adaptation. This seems reasonable, until one examines the content of IQ tests. Intelligence, as tested in all IQ tests, includes virtually no skills that can be identified in terms of such a definition of intelligence.

To support her statement, Siegel gives a detailed analysis of the subtests of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised (WISC-R). This IQ test is composed of Verbal and Performance sections, and is often used in diagnosis of learning difficulties. In each subtest of the Verbal scale, performance is in varying degrees dependent on specific knowledge, vocabulary, expressive language and memory skills, while in the Performance scale, visual-spatial abilities, fine motor coordination, perceptual skills, and in some subtests speed, are essential for scoring.

As Siegel rightly points out, IQ tests measure, for the most part, what a person has learned, not what he or she is capable of doing in the future.

There is an additional problem in the use of IQ tests with individuals with learning impairments.  According to Siegel it is a paradox that IQ scores are required of disabled people because many of these persons have difficulty in one or more of the component skills that are part of these IQ tests — memory, language, fine motor skills, and so on. The effect is that they may end up having a lower IQ score than a person who does not have such problems, even though they may both have identical reasoning and problem-solving skills. The lower IQ score, therefore, may be a result of the learning impairment, and IQ scores may underestimate the real ‘intelligence’ of the disabled individual.

Hey Miss so if your body is slow to react or you cannot use your hands you will do worse at psychometric tests? Surely that’s not fair?

  • IQ vs other skills. Another assumption is that an IQ score should predict reading, If you have a low IQ score you should be a poor reader and that poor reading is an expected consequence of low IQ. However, there are many individuals who have low IQ scores and are very good readers making a nonsense of this way of thinking.

Hey Miss you know some people do not seem that clever but they can read really well don’t you?


  • Importance of speed and action for scoring high on tests. Most psychometric assessments are carried out against the clock/stop watch. If you are slow because of movement differences or learning style you will do worse at the assessments. If doing things is hard for you because of any kind of physical impairment or difference then you will score less well against norms created against a ‘typical ‘population.

Hey Miss lots of people with physical disability and some with autism have movement problems that make them take much longer to respond to any instruction or task.  Surely they will do much worse on these timed tests? Is this fair or even informative?


  • No such thing as fixed potential or ability.

Children and adults continue to learn throughout their lives. No-one has ever proved the existence of fixed potential, a ceiling or definitive figure that lasts a person a life time.

Hey Miss don’t we all keep learning our whole lives?

Hart, S, Dixon A, Drummond MJ and McIntyre D (2004) spell out the impact on teachers, young people and the curriculum of this way of thinking. See their aptly titled ‘Learning without limits’ book for full references below:

Effects on teachers

  •  Ability labelling shapes teachers’ attitudes towards children and limits their expectations for some children’s learning. Teachers vary their teaching and respond differently towards children viewed as ‘bright’, ‘average’ or ‘less able’ (e.g. Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968; Jackson 1964; Keddie 1971; Croll and Moses 1985; Good and Brophy 1991; Hacker et al 1991; Suknandan and Lee 1998).
  •  Fixed ability thinking reduces teachers’ sense of their own power to promote learning and development through the use of their expertise and professional judgement. It therefore discourages creativity and inventiveness to overcome difficulties (e.g. Bloom 1976; Simon 1953; Kelly 1955; Dixon 1989; Drummond 2003; Hart 1996, 2000).
  •  Fixed ability thinking encourages teachers to see differential performance as natural and inevitable, and so diverts attention from the part that school and classroom processes play in enabling or limiting learning for individuals and groups (e.g. Jackson 1964; Bourdieu 1976; Bernstein 1971; Tizard and Hughes 1984; Rist 1970; Coard 1971).
  • Effects on young people
  •  Young people learn how they are perceived by teachers and respond to that perception; they tend to live up to or down to expectations (e.g. Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968; Nash 1973; Good and Brophy 1991, Tizard et al 1988).
  •  Ability-labelling undermines many young people’s dignity, their self-belief, their hopes and expectations for their own learning. It strips them of their sense of themselves as competent, creative human beings, leading them to adopt self-protective strategies that are inimical to learning (e.g. Dweck 2000; Hargreaves 1967, 1982; Lacey 1970, Ball 1981; Holt 1990; Jackson 1968; Pearl 1997).
  •  Fixed ability thinking and ability-led practices tend to disadvantage some groups of young people. Research has repeatedly drawn attention to social class and ethnicity-based inequalities in the processes of selection, grouping and differentiation of curricula (e.g. Jackson 1964; Douglas 1964; CACE 1967; Ford 1969; Heath 1983; Taylor 1993; Gillborn and Youdell 2000).

Effects on curriculum

  •  Fixed ability thinking encourages and legitimates a narrow view of curriculum, learning and achievement (e.g. Hargreaves 1980; Alexander 1984, 2000; Goldstein and Noss 1990) .
  •  By naturalising explanations of differential achievement, fixed ability thinking perpetuates the limitations and biases built into existing curricula (e.g. Gardner, 1983; West 1991).
  •  Ability labelling and grouping by ability restrict the range of learning opportunities to which individual pupils are exposed (e.g. Jackson 1964; Nash 1973; Suknandan and Lee 1998; Hacker et al 1991; Oakes 1982, 1985; Boaler 1997a, b; Boaler et al 2000).
  •  Ability labelling and grouping encourage schools and teachers to privilege psychometric knowledge of young people over the knowledge acquired through day-to-day classroom interaction (e.g. Kelly 1955; Hull 1985; Hart et al 2004).


  • Medical model dominates thinking. IQ scores and psychometric test results are clinically focused on the child or young person’s deficits especially if they have additional support needs. They provide one answer to the vexing question ‘What is wrong with you?’

Hey Miss – ‘I scored relatively high in an IQ test when I was a child. Since then I have done many many many very very very stupid things in my life. I still wonder what that test has to do with intelligence or understanding at all’. (Alex Wien, Austria, 2009)


  • Dangerous Assumption implied

Many people are under the false assumption that intelligence tests measure a person’s inborn or biological intelligence that is set in stone and will never change-a fixed potential. Intelligence tests are in reality based on an individual’s interaction with the environment and can never exclusively measure inborn intelligence –  if such an entity even existed. Intelligence tests have been associated with categorizing and stereotyping people. Additionally, it is clear that knowledge of one’s performance on an intelligence test may affect a person’s aspirations and motivation to obtain goals.

Disabled people are people first. Because of the presence of an impairment, a person may act, get around, look, dance, smile, read, learn, show what she knows, or communicate differently. The key here is that this is a difference and not a deficiency. As humans, we are all alike only in that we are all different. The fact that society tends to create a hierarchy of these differences, by labeling some of them deficiencies, is a manifestation of an out-dated paradigm plagued by prejudice. This inherent prejudice against disabled people means that some differences will be defined as deficiencies and looked down upon by all of those “higher up” on the social ladder.

Anne Donnellan (1994), identified why this old paradigm is not sufficient and needs to be replaced by a more humanistic and respectful one. The key to the new paradigm is the concept of the “Least Dangerous Assumption.”

“Least dangerous assumption” states that in the absence of absolute evidence, it is essential to make the assumption that, if proven to be false, would be least dangerous to the individual. She continues by explaining that the “absence of evidence can never be absolute evidence of absence,” and as such, it is always safest and most respectful to make the “least dangerous assumption.”

Consider it this way. If I were to go fishing for a week and not catch anyfish, there would be two assumptions that could be made. First, I could say “there are no fish in the lake since I did not catch any, and I know what I am doing.” Or, second, I could say simply that “I did not catch any fish that week, and I will keep on trying.” The first assumption seems rather arrogant, while the second one is more realistic and respectful. (There is a third assumption that I could make which would be that I am not a good fisherman, but we won’t go there).The same holds true for students with disabilities. Imagine a child who does not talk with the spoken word and moves around using a wheelchair. Her teachers have worked with her for a month and have not yet seen any evidence of what she understands. In fact, they wonder if she knows or is aware of anything at all. These teachers can make one of two assumptions. They can assume that “what you see is what you get” and that this child does not know anything, that her brain is as empty as that lake. As such, they can educate her in a way that reflects those assumptions (perhaps segregated classes or regular classes with low or no expectations). Now imagine her as she graduates and uses a communication device to say, “Why did you treat me so poorly?”. I am smart and you wasted twelve years of my life!” A very dangerous assumption was made, with results that none of us would desire.

Now, consider the second assumption. These same teachers can recognise that her movement differences are differences and not deficiencies. They can assume that she knows lots and just isn’t currently able to show what she knows. Her brain is as full of knowledge and potential as that lake is of fish, but they just have not been able to reel anything in yet. As such, her schooling would reflect these high expectations and she would be considered and respected as a valued member of her school and classes. Now again, imagine her twelve years later at graduation, using her communication device to say, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of my teachers who believed in me and made me feel as if I truly belonged and treated me like all of my classmates.” This is the least dangerous assumption, one that results in a young woman who can celebrate her full and fulfilling life.

But consider a third scenario as well. What if we never come up with a way for this young woman to communicate her intelligence? What if, after twelve years as a valued and respected student in all general education classes, we still do not know exactly what she has learned and knows? What harm was done? What was lost? Nothing. And that truly is the least dangerous assumption.

Understanding the concept of “least dangerous assumption” and acting on it are two different things. The idea of considering all people as capable and intelligent may not come naturally to some people due to the influence of society’s prejudices against people with disabilities. Most well intentioned adults and professionals have been taught to believe in the out-dated paradigm and, therefore, may make very dangerous assumptions about students with disabilities. Many people’s first impressions of people with disabilities are tainted by years of societal prejudice and media portrayals of what is enviable and worthwhile. While the power of these experiences is strong, we can no longer allow this to serve as a justification for the perpetuation of the prejudices against students or adults with disabilities.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is: “Do you really believe that the individual with disabilities is a valued and competent and unique person?” Think long and hard about that question. If you cannot honestly answer “yes,” then the next question is simply, “Why?” Think about your beliefs, your experiences, and the prejudice you have

been taught. Ask yourself how you can change those dangerous assumptions and mindsets. Talk with people who are friends, parents, siblings, lovers, and colleagues of people with disabilities. Listen to people who have been segregated or devalued because of the way they look or move or communicate. Learn everything you can about the many ways people communicate and get around and show us who they are and what they know. Introduce yourself to people who had labels of mental retardation while in school, who now are able to communicate their thoughts and feelings and tell us all, loud and clear, “I am intelligent!” Recognize your prejudices and work through them. It will not be as difficult as it first seems. And you will never again make assumptions about people that result in the loss of opportunity, experience, or respect.

All people are people first. Everyone belongs to this wonderful life. No one should have to conform to someone else’s standards before they are told that they are “good.” We all belong. We all have strengths and weaknesses and our own individual potential to be great people and to live the lives we want. We can all lead happy and fulfilling lives, supported by those around us to be successful adults. It is up to all of us to examine our own core beliefs and to spread the word of the least dangerous assumption. We can no longer allow the justification of a prejudice that is so dangerous. Now is definitely the time to believe that all people are valued individuals with limitless potential. Keep on fishing – the lake is overflowing!!!!

(Rossetti, Z. & Tashie, C. 2006)


So does intelligence really exist?

Probably not as any kind of single entity or potential. What else can we conclude about ‘intelligence’ from the above?

  1. Intelligence can not safely be reduced to a single measure
  2. Language and culture impact upon an individual’s performance on any kind of psychometric test
  3. Movement differences and difficulties including issues with spoken language make such testing invalid and unreliable
  4. Intelligence measures are only dealing with experiences the tested person has had, they do not truly access underlying processes
  5. Intelligence assessment is based on highly questionable assumptions about thought and language.

Intelligence would appear to be a fluid, context dependent variable that is not quantifiable but is a social construction. Multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) are perhaps one more useful way to consider thinking and problems solving processes.

Perhaps we should simply refer to specific thinking, linguistic, memory and problem solving processes without ever trying to bundle them up as one entity. We certainly should be wary of giving more value and credence to certain skills over others  such as verbal over non verbal for instance.

Such a stance will call for more tentative, sophisticated ways of sketching out how someone operates in the world. Such sketching will need to be done in collaboration with those who know and love the person themselves and with their full participation. The tools used for such sketching may need to be more humble than the oppressive pseudo scientific assessment tools of the past, but in turn are likely to be more useful and respectful. 

Let us live with uncertainty and accept respectfully the messiness of the unknown whilst always assuming that more is present and possible.

What should assessors do instead?

  1. Ask those who love a person or who spend most time with them to describe their strengths, gifts and needs. This is where true wisdom about a person exists. Structured questions may help and shared reflection and theory building after collecting stories may enrich a picture and better inform decisions and strategies.
  2. Explore person centred qualities or ordinary needs as first named by John O’Brien as Service accomplishments: choice and control, being someone, contribution, sharing ordinary places and belonging.
  3. Beware of dangerous assumptions when assessing. Always assume competence when in doubt or when movements are difficult for a person.
  4. Paint or sketch portraits in words and images of the whole person and their context. Instead of trying to be the pseudo-scientific objective tester we should adopt tools more familiar to the artist creating a portrait (O’Brien 2002).

The latter investigation demands different and more nuanced tools – those that enable the search for what is healthy. Listening to children or co-constructing a narrative with them?  This means reshaping the relationship between the psychologist and the learner to arrive at an end product which influences future dialogues between the young person and those closest to him or her. To deepen the conversations we might have about that young person and their inclusion/place in the world. Details are given of the particular – the complexity and detail of another’s experiences are documented in the hope that readers will see themselves in it even if it is exotic.


We only truly understand if we feel some sense of connection or identification with the person in the picture or story– stand in their shoes of the child with autism – nobody sees themselves in the generalisations of the ‘Triad’. Context is a source of understanding – not a source of data distortion. Behaviour may give us a clue – but it is the meanings people attach to the behaviours that ought really to concern us.


The standard is authenticity rather than ‘truth’ so there is never a single story – many could be told. The narrowest stories about individuals are drawn from the psychometric encounter – “Kevin has a mental age of 2 years”




  1. Make use of criterion referenced or curriculum based assessment to inform planning. How is a child progressing in relation to what they are being taught as opposed to presumed underlying intellectual processes. One of the aims of criterion referencing is to focus on individual, differentiated assessment. By moving away from norm-referencing, to a system which describes what students know, understand and can do, assessments can be used to provide feedback and to inform future teaching and learning needs.
  2. Use authentic assessment processes that respect context and learning. This is a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills.

“…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.”  (Wiggins, 2006)

  • Use the wider frame suggested by the work being done on ‘Multiple Intelligences’, and always notice and respect if not starting by noting diverse Learning Styles.  

The theory of multiple intelligences was developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University. It suggests that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on I.Q. testing, is far too limited. Instead, Dr. Gardner proposes eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of human potential in children and adults. These intelligences are:

Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”):

Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)

Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)

Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)

Musical intelligence (“music smart”)

Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)

Intrapersonal intelligence (“self-smart”)

Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)


  1. Engage in participant observation which has a long and respected history in the world of anthropology. Participant observation is the involvement of the anthropologist in the activities of the people in that society, so that instead of just observing the people, the anthropologist is able to get a more hands on experience of how these people live their lives. The main advantages of participant observation are that it allows the anthropologists to obtain a deeper and more experienced insight on the activities that the individuals of a society perform and the ways in which they think and that it also allows the anthropologists to gain a good overview of how and why a society functions.

Who are the participants who will have best knowledge about a child or young person? How long will we need to be part of a young persons life to get a real handle on who they are what they bring?

  • Always respect the social model of disability! The social model of disability proposes that barriers and prejudice and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) are the ultimate factors defining who is disabled and who is not in a particular society.

Self Paced Training Course on this subject  – available from 2021




Donnellan, A. M.  & Leary, M. R. (1995).  Movement differences and diversity in autism/mental retardation: Appreciating and accommodating people with communication challenges. Madison, Wisconsin: DRI Press.


Gallannaugh, Frances and  Dyson, Alan The Journal of Special Education, Vol. 42, No. 1, 36-46 (2008) DOI: 10.1177/0022466907313607 Disproportionality in Special Needs Education in England: University of Manchester


Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic,1983Intelligence Quotient: Prof. Dr. Hans-Hilger Ropers/ Prof. Dr. Randolf Menzel (2007)

Hart, S, Dixon A, Drummond MJ and McIntyre D (2004) Learning Without Limits, Open University Press


J Leadbetter. 2005. Activity theory as a Conceptual Framework and Analytical Tool within the Practice of Educational Psychology, Educational and Child Psychology, 22, 1, 18‐28. ISSN: 0267‐1611.PLASC and School Level Annual School Census 2002


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