Projective Assessment and School Psychology: Contemporary Validity Issues and Implications for Practice

By Miller, David N.; Nickerson, Amanda B. | The California School Psychologist, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Projective Assessment and School Psychology: Contemporary Validity Issues and Implications for Practice


Miller, David N., Nickerson, Amanda B., The California School Psychologist


Projective techniques continue to be widely used by school psychologists despite frequent criticisms of their use. This article reviews contemporary validity issues in the use of projective techniques with children and adolescents, including incremental validity, treatment validity, and problems associated with professional judgment and experience. A discussion of these issues and their implications for school-based projective assessment is provided, along with recommendations for the appropriate use of projective techniques with children and youth within a problemsolving framework.

A central component of contemporary school psychology training and practice is data-based decision making and accountability (Ysseldyke et al., 2006). Consistently recommended practices for conducting reliable, valid, and comprehensive assessments of child and adolescent emotional and behavioral problems involve gathering various sources of assessment data from multiple informants (e.g., parents, teachers, students) across different settings (McConaughy & Ritter, 2002). In addition, assessments should not only estimate current student functioning by defining problems, needs, and assets, but should also be linked directly to the development and evaluation of interventions (Ysseldyke et al., 2006).

Behavioral assessment methods (e.g., interviews, observations, informant-report measures) are generally viewed by school psychologists as more useful (Cheramie, Griffin, & Morgan, 2000) and acceptable (Eckert, Hintze, & Shapiro, 1997) than traditional assessment procedures such as projective techniques for assessing students with suspected emotional and/or behavioral problems. However, projective techniques continue to be widely used with this population in schools (Hosp & Reschly, 2002; Shapiro & Heick, 2004; Wilson & Reschly, 1996) and are viewed as important in the assessment process (Kennedy, Faust, Willis, & Piotrowski, 1994). For example, results from a recent national survey indicated that school psychologists view projective techniques as helpful and that they frequently use them with children and adolescents across grade levels and for a variety of purposes, including special education eligibility determination and intervention development (Hojnoski, Morrison, Brown, & Matthews, 2006).

Projective techniques are assessment methods in which unstructured stimuli (e.g., inkblots; pictures) are presented to individuals who are then expected to respond verbally or motorically (e.g., drawing) depending on the requirements of the task. Unlike other assessment tools, responses to projective techniques are not "right" or "wrong" in a traditional sense. Rather, responses to projective techniques are typically assumed to reflect the unconscious drives, wishes, and/or feelings of a particular individual (Chandler, 2003). Projective techniques originated from psychodynamic theory and their use is based on the "projective hypothesis," which is the hypothesized tendency of individuals to view and interpret the world in terms of their own unique experience. An assumption underlying the use of projective techniques is that "in trying to make sense out of vague, unstructured stimuli, individuals 'project' their own problems, motives, and wishes" into the ambiguous situation that is presented (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2007, p. 119). Examples of projective techniques include sentence completion tests, apperception tests, and projective drawings. These techniques are in contrast to more objective, behaviorally based assessment methods.

Despite their wide use in schools, projective techniques have consistently been criticized throughout much of their history (Dawes, 1994; Lilienfield, Wood, & Garb, 2000), and their use with children and adolescents remains highly controversial (Merrell, 2003), with many promoting their use in schools (e.g., Bardos, 1993; Chandler, 2003; Naglieri, 1993; Yalof, Abraham, Domingos, & Socket, 2001) and others condemning them (e. …

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