grey matter

Explainer: Why conducting psychometric tests on school employees will do little for child safety

The CBSE has asked its schools to conduct psychometric evaluations of all school staff. But these tests cannot predict psychopathic behavior, say psychiatrists.

After a boy was found murdered in a Gurugram school last week, the Central Board for Secondary Education or CBSE, issued a circular to affiliated schools giving them two months to complete psychometric evaluation of all school staff. However, psychiatrists who have worked with criminals and those who have worked with children say that psychometric tests cannot be used to predict psychopathic or criminal behavior. These tests do not have scientific validity to be used as metrics to hire or fire employees.

People working in the field of child safety advocate a broader set of actions like instituting a child protection policy that includes proper training of staff, establishing a code of conduct and a robust complaint redressal system. However, the school board has decided to focus on the task of trying to detect psychopathic traits in school employees.

Psychopathy is defined as a “constellation of affective, interpersonal, and behavioral characteristics including impulsivity, irresponsibility, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, pathological lying, and persistent violation of social norms and expectations”. Psychometric analysis includes both quantitative and qualitative tests used to assess psychological behavior, abilities and problems. The tests can be written, interview-based or projective where a person is presented with images, words or situations and his or her response is gauged.

If CBSE’s aim in issuing the notification is to find potential psychopaths and keep them away from schools, then the education authority has misunderstood the efficacy of psychological tests and what they tell us, say experts.

These tests are not like blood tests that can detect diseases like diabetes or hypertension, said Dr Soumitra Pathare, psychiatrist and the director of the Centre for Mental Health and Policy at the India Law Society in Pune. “The tests are subjectively interpreted,” she said. “There are also questions raised about the scientific validity of these tests.”

As Pathare points out, psychometric tests do not predict outcomes and, at most, help in diagnosing a mental condition and designing treatment protocol.

Dr Suresh Bada Math, a forensic psychiatrist from National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru, called the CBSE’s exercise a “sham”. He works with undertrials and convicts within the prison system and counsels two or three such incarcerated persons every day. He observes that even among those suspected or convicted of violent crimes psychometric tests do not always provide any indication of history of violent behaviour.

The results of these tests may not mean much if they are conducted on people with no history of psychological problems. Psychiatrists consider the tests in context of a person’s behavioural history and not in isolation.

“A psychological test may reveal a psychopathic tendency or traits,” said Dr Savita Malhotra, former head of psychiatry at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh. “But with no history taken, the test results cannot tell us if the person is likely to commit an offence.”

At best, psychometric tests can be one in a broad set of tools that can help mental health workers treat their patients. “The tests can have additional value [to other forms of tests and therapy], but cannot provide substantial evidence of any condition,” said Bada Math. “For instance, if the tests show that someone has psychopathic tendencies, we can suggest they do yoga or try anger control.”

Ethically questionable

Subjecting a large number of people to psychometric tests poses an ethical problem.

“Once you decide that a person is a potential child abuser based on such tests, the person is labelled for life,” said Pathare. “Nobody sets out to be an abuser.”

Denying anyone a job based on these tests would also be discriminatory. “What if someone has a psychopathic trait?” asked Bada Math. “It cannot be the basis of denying anyone a job.”

Besides this, the CBSE announcement will open up the commercial interests for people selling the service of conducting psychometric tests,” said Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist in Mumbai. “As it opens up the commercial interests, it will also result in exclusion of people based on these tests,” said Shetty.

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