I teach a graduate level course in assessment. Professional assessment begins with first defining the construct to be assessed.
For example, if we seek to create an assessment for intelligence, we must first define what we mean by the construct of “intelligence.”
If we are creating an assessment for self-esteem, we must first define what we mean by the construct of “self-esteem.”
The professional process of developing an assessment procedure BEGINS with defining the construct to be assessed.
In professional psychology, defining the construct to be assessed is called developing an “operational definition” for the construct. For example, do we define intelligence as the amount of knowledge a person has, or is intelligence an approach to reasoning and solving problems? Or both? Based on our operational definition of the construct, we then develop an approach to assessing for that definition of the construct.
If we define intelligence as being the amount of information the person knows, then we develop questions to sample how much the person knows. If we define intelligence as the person’s reasoning ability, then we develop questions that challenge the person’s ability to solve abstract problems. In professional psychology, our assessment procedures are dependent on how we define the construct to be assessed – our “operational definition” for the construct.
However, child custody evaluations have entirely skipped this crucial step in the assessment process. Child custody evaluations are supposedly assessing two key constructs of family functioning:
- Parental capacity
- The best interest of the child.
Yet neither of these key constructs is operationally defined in the custody evaluation procedures.
The failure to operationally define the key constructs that are being assessed by child custody evaluations leads to a fundamentally and fatally flawed assessment in which the evaluator is allowed to make up his or her own idiosyncratic definition of these constructs, which introduces into the assessment process the inherent biases of the individual evaluator. Different evaluators will have differing interpretations and definitions for the key constructs of “parental capacity” and “best interests of the child,” leading to differing conclusions and recommendations from different evaluators.
Reliability and Validity
Reliability: The stability of the findings from one assessment to the next (test-retest reliability), or from one evaluator to the next (inter-rater reliability).
Validity: The truth and accuracy of the assessment’s findings.
If the conclusions and recommendations reached by an assessment practice are not stable across evaluators (if an assessment procedure is not reliable) then the conclusions and recommendations cannot, by definition, be valid.
If an assessment procedure for a person’s intelligence results in a finding of normal-range intelligence when the assessment is administered by Psychologist A, but results in a finding of significant cognitive impairment when the assessment is administered by Psychologist B, then this assessment procedure is not reliable, and if an assessment procedure is not reliable, then the findings, by definition, cannot be valid.
In this example, is the person being assessed of normal-range intelligence? Or is the person cognitively impaired? If the results of an assessment depend on who conducts the assessment, then the findings are not a valid indicator of person’s actual intelligence but are simply a reflection of the personal biases introduced by the individual evaluator.
The first step toward making an assessment reliable (stable across evaluators; called “inter-rater” reliability), is to operationally define the construct to be assessed. Operationally defining the construct allows all assessors to apply the same definition of the construct to the assessment data, thereby improving the inter-rater reliability of the assessment.
Operationally Defining Parental Capacity
In developing an operational definition for the construct of parental capacity, the central issue is to identify the key factors of parenting that capture the quality of parenting behavior. Identifying the key qualitative descriptors for parental behavior will allow evaluators to more reliably assess parental behavior on these key qualities.
In an effort to provide a solution – or at the very least to initiate a discussion of the issue – I have developed a checklist of key parenting qualities that can describe parenting practices. This checklist is on my website:
This rating scale identifies four aspects of parenting behavior as central to defining the construct of parental capacity:
1.) Classification of Parenting Behavior: A categorical classification of parental behavior within a 4-tiered hierarchy.
Level 1: Child abuse
Level 2: Severely problematic parenting
Level 3: Problematic parenting
Level 4: Healthy parenting
2.) Permissive-Authoritarian Parenting: A dimensional rating from 1 to 100 along the parenting spectrum of permissive parenting, through communication-based and discipline-based parenting, to authoritarian parenting practices.
3.) Capacity for Authentic Empathy: A rating from 1 to 5 along the parenting dimension of authentic empathy for the child’s experience; from narcissistic self-absorbed parenting at one end of the spectrum, through authentic empathy, to over-intrusive enmeshed parenting at the other end of the spectrum.
4.) Issues of Clinical Concern: A categorical indicator of additional issues of clinical concern relative to the parent.
If court-involved mental health professionals, including child custody evaluators, court-involved therapists, and court-appointed parenting coordinators, were to begin including this brief Parenting Practices Rating Scale in their assessments and reports, the increased clarity afforded by this rating scale would substantially improve the standardization for the definition of parental capacity.
Professional assessment BEGINS by operationally defining the construct to be assessed. The Parenting Practices Rating Scale is my offer of an operational definition for the construct of parental capacity.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857