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Best Practices in Assessment Interpretation

by Jennifer Mackey
Have you ever heard a client remark that a counsellor once told them they should be X? Such a remark is invariably the result of poor interpretive practices.
Clients look to us for concrete answers about what they should do. It is our responsibility to help them explore options, not tell them what they should do. Remembering the following best practices in assessment interpretation will help us fulfill that responsibility.

Consider Contexts 

The context of both the client and the assessment tool are important to consider throughout the interpretive process.
In terms of the client’s context, considering their goals, barriers, and action plans is critical. Interpretations for a client with a goal of returning to school, for example, would focus on the match between measures and career options. Interpretations would be further modified by the client’s preferences around duration or location of training and any presenting barriers such as childcare or transportation.
In terms of the assessment tool’s context, considering its objective is necessary. For instance, an assessment tool with an objective of measuring abilities is not to be confused with one measuring aptitudes since the former are demonstrated and the latter are inherent. Be sure to clearly inform the client on exactly what is being measured

Account for Modifying Variables

Modifying variables play a role in interpretive accuracy and need to be accounted for. How carefully were administrative procedures followed? To what extent were environmental factors such as lighting, heating and noise controlled? Does the client experience test anxiety, language or disability issues? Since text anxiety is a common issue, having a conversation with the client around their assessment experience ahead of interpretation is critical. If modifying variables were not tightly controlled, a retest may be warranted. Even if the assessment conditions were fair, retests can supply valuable comparative data.

Employ Appropriate Interpretive Strategies

There are two main strategies to employ when interpreting standardized assessments.

The first is normative interpretation and involves comparing the client’s results to others’ results. This strategy is particularly useful when interpreting achievement-focused assessments, such as the CAAT. The second is ipsative interpretation and involves comparing the client’s results to their other results. This strategy works well when dealing with interest- and personality-based tools.

Either or both strategies may be used in a given interpretation depending on the discretion of the interpreter and the types and number of assessments completed.

Emphasize Positives

Strong counselling skills are needed when interpreting assessment results, including active listening, concreteness, questioning and summarizing.

Of special importance is the skill of positive asset identification. It is suggested that interpretation begin and end with a discussion of the client’s strengths and that areas for improvement be sandwiched in between. Rather than emphasize where the client can improve, reframe and highlight how the client’s assets can contribute to their goal-achievement. In some cases, shielding the client from assessment data is necessary in order to keep the session centred on exploring positives.

Compare Standardized and Non-Standardized Results

Ideally, the client will have shared their story ahead of assessment. Assessment results serve to complement the client’s narrative.

Whether a narrative approach has been taken or not, a comprehensive interpretation would involve an exploration of the client’s thoughts and feelings about their assessment results. How does the client think they relate to their goals? Were there any surprises?

If there are discrepancies between the assessment results and the client’s narrative, these need to be discussed. For example, if a client indicates their immediate goal to be completion of a college-level program and assessment results point to a Grade 8 achievement level, it would be helpful to give the client feedback on realistic pathways to accomplish their goal.

Remember that Assessments are Tools

Perhaps most importantly, always remember that assessments are tools. Avoid attaching labels to clients, as this can lead to clients feeling trapped. Patiently guide clients in making connections between their assessment results and career options. Collaborate with them in weaving what’s meaningful from their assessment results into the tapestry of their narrative.

Jennifer Mackey is an empowering career counsellor, training and development specialist, and human resources generalist and can be contacted at

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