Ethics Rounds

Writing an ethics code for a profession is an enormously challenging endeavor. The code must both set forth the profession's core values and demonstrate how the values apply in the practice of the profession.

If the code focuses solely on values, individuals engaged in the profession may have too little guidance on how the values are expressed in their day-to-day work. If the code focuses solely on practical application, it will fail to place the professional's work in a larger context and inevitably fall short of addressing the myriad of complicated situations that arise in a professional's life. Thus, the drafters of an ethics code must achieve a balance between the general and the specific. Ethical Standard 9.09, Test Scoring and Interpretation Services, shows the drafters of APA's Ethics Code working creatively with this tension.

Standards and principles guiding testing services

Standard 9.09 addresses the use of test-scoring and interpretation services from two perspectives: that of psychologists who offer such services and that of psychologists who select such services for use. The standard begins by setting forth the obligations of psychologists who offer assessment or scoring services:


    (a) Psychologists who offer assessment or scoring services to other professionals accurately describe the purpose, norms, validity, reliability, and applications of the procedures and any special qualifications applicable to their use.

In its next two paragraphs, (b) and (c), Standard 9.09 addresses the responsibilities of psychologists who use scoring and interpretation services. In these paragraphs, the Ethics Code's tension between the general and the specific--between a focus on values and a focus on application--makes itself felt:

(b) Psychologists select scoring and interpretation services (including automated services) on the basis of evidence of the validity of the program and procedures as well as on other appropriate considerations. (See also Standard 2.01(b) and (c), Boundaries of Competence.)

(c) Psychologists retain responsibility for the appropriate application, interpretation, and use of assessment instruments, whether they score and interpret such tests themselves or use automated or other services.

General Principle A in the Ethics Code, Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, states "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." Principle A goes on to state that "Psychologists' scientific and professional judgments and actions may affect the lives of others." Principle A recognizes the influence that psychologists have over others and exhorts psychologists to use that influence responsibly and with care. In few places of our profession is this influence felt more than in psychological assessments, where the consequences of a good--or bad--intervention can have an enormous impact on an individual's life. Principle A thus has direct relevance to Ethical Standard 9.09.

Professional judgment

Ethical Standard 9.09(b) moves the concepts of beneficence and nonmaleficence into the particular context of scoring and interpretation services. Note how, in doing so, Standard 9.09(b) leaves ample room for psychologists to exercise their professional judgment and discretion. The standard states that psychologists select services "on the basis of evidence of the validity of the program and procedures as well as on other appropriate considerations." By using the word "evidence," and the phrase "other appropriate considerations," the code gives psychologists latitude in choosing what sort of evidence of the program's validity is necessary or appropriate, given the purpose ("other appropriate considerations") for which the service is used.

The sort of evidence required by a psychologist who simply wants to generate and test hypotheses, for example, may be very different than the sort of evidence required by a psychologist who is completing an evaluation of a child seeking special education services or of an adult in a criminal proceeding. In the former instance, generating hypotheses might help the psychologist see a clinical situation in a new and helpful light, and there is little downside to having additional hypotheses that the psychologist can disregard if they do not fit with other data. The stakes in the criminal and special education contexts are considerable, and if a psychologist intends to rely on an interpretation service for such purposes, the nature of the evidence required about a program's validity may well be enhanced. The combination of the general principles and the ethical standard is thus central to the psychologist's decision-making: Given the purpose for which the service is utilized, what evidence of the program's validity do I require so that I may benefit, and not harm, my client?

The final clause of 9.09(b), referring to ethical standards on competence, is an excellent introduction to 9.09(c). Standard 9.09(c) places responsibility for the "application, interpretation and use" of assessment instruments on the psychologist. The psychologist conducting the assessment retains ultimate responsibility for what the report or evaluation contains. This point has particular relevance when psychologists use automated interpretation services.

The use of an automated service does not in any manner attenuate a psychologist's responsibility for the assessment. For this reason, psychologists who use automated services do well to ensure that they are competent to use the assessment instrument and that they are competent to render whatever interpretation the service has generated, to the extent that they intend to use the interpretation in an evaluation or a report, or otherwise put forth the interpretation as part of an assessment.

Knowledge of the relevant research, norms, validity, reliability and test procedures may all be essential in the process of explaining or defending an interpretation, should the psychologist be called upon to do so. It is therefore wise for the psychologist using an automated service to pose the question: What information about a program need I have in order to take responsibility for what my assessment contains?

Standard 9.09's reference to ethical standards on competence underscores that the psychologist retains ultimate responsibility for the assessment. Standard 2.01, Boundaries of Competence, identifies individual characteristics that may be relevant to an assessment ("age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language or socioeconomic status") and states that psychologists working in new areas "undertake relevant education, training, supervised experience, consultation or study."

The standard's emphasis on competence is respectful of the psychologist's professional judgment by recognizing that a psychologist competently performing a professional assessment has the capacity to do significant good. Conversely, achieving and maintaining competence is a way of avoiding the harm that can come from a poorly performed assessment. Avoiding harm is central to the Ethics Code, and is found in both the General Principles (Principle A, "nonmaleficence") and ethical standards (Standard 3.04, Avoiding Harm).

Ethical Standard 9.09 provides an excellent example of the Ethics Code incorporating both values and practical application in a particular context, that of psychological assessment. The code recognizes the profound impact of psychologists who conduct assessments and locates that impact among a set of values, primary among which are doing good and not doing harm. These values are expressed by having psychologists retain ultimate responsibility for the results of their assessments and by ensuring that psychologists are competent to assume this responsibility.

The code is respectful of psychologists' competence and responsibility by providing ample room for the exercise of professional judgment. The notions of values (ethical principles), practical application (code of conduct) and respect for the profession of psychology, illustrated in Standard 9.09, are all contained in the formal title of our Ethics Code: "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct."

Further Reading

APA's Ethics Code
Send questions or comments about this column or suggestions for future "Ethics Rounds" columns via email.