Mental Health Assessments or Standardized Testing? Lines Are Blurring.


This piece was co-authored by Jane Robbins, an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project.

In The Wall Street Journal recently, New Hampshire physician Dr. Aida Cerundolo blew the whistle on faux mental-health assessment of public-school students in the Granite State. Some K-8 students are being subjected to blanket screening by untrained, unlicensed personnel, with serious questions about use or protection of the resulting records. And parents not only haven’t consented to this process, they haven’t even been told it’s happening.

We have written about the disturbing conversion of public schools from places of learning into therapeutic institutions for diagnosing and treating perceived social-emotional problems. This is all part of so-called social-emotional learning (SEL), which is pushed by the new fed-ed bill (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA). Not that ESSA has to push very hard — the mammoth and monolithic K-12 education establishment, both federal and state, is partnering with corporate education cronies to get all children on the psychiatric couch. From there, the kids can be more easily shaped to demonstrate the kinds of mindsets and attitudes the government wants.

The vehicle for this effort in New Hampshire is the Devereaux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA). Distributed by the Kaplan Early Learning Company, DESSA is a test designed to assess children’s “competencies” in eight domains: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, goal-directed behavior, relationship skills, personal responsibility, decision-making, and optimistic thinking.

This psychological assessment is administered not by licensed mental-health professionals but rather by teachers. (In fact, Devereaux touts that with DESSA, “no special training or certification [is] required.”) The untrained teachers are apparently expected to have the time and psychiatric expertise to play Freud while getting their little charges ready for high-stakes tests and those all-important entry-level jobs for which Common Core prepares them.

As Dr. Cerundolo explains, every month the teacher must answer 72 questions about each of the perhaps dozens of students in her class. She must assess whether the student “carr[ies] himself with confidence,” whatever that means for a 5-year-old, and whether he can “cope well with insults and mean comments.” [It’s not clear how the teacher should make that latter assessment of a child who hasn’t been insulted. The progressive-education establishment may be so obsessed with the alleged epidemic of “bullying” that it assumes all students are victims.]

The point of these amateur mental-health assessments is to determine which students need further intervention. The educrats seem unconcerned that these determinations could be influenced by inevitable biases of the untrained teachers making the subjective assessments. Might a teacher who appreciates an exuberant child rate him differently than would a teacher who values quiet attention? Would one teacher flag a bouncy child for possible Attention Deficit Disorder, while a teacher with a different personality assesses a quiet introvert as abnormally withdrawn? Would both of these students be destined for mental-health treatment — and possibly dangerous medication?

And what about the confidentiality of these “assessments”? As Dr. Cerundolo warns, if they were performed and recorded by medical professionals, they would be kept strictly confidential under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But that’s not the case when the administrators of the assessment are teachers. So the best parents can hope for is that the records will constitute “education records” protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Cold comfort — after the Obama administration gutted FERPA via regulation in 2012, schools and education agencies may now share a student’s records with literally anyone in the world as long as they use the right language to justify the disclosure — and they need not tell parents they’re doing so.

Dr. Cerundolo’s alarm at the imposition of DESSA is shared by at least some New Hampshire teachers. One of them contacted Ann Marie Banfield, Education Liaison for Cornerstone Action in New Hampshire, to express her objections to completing the DESSA forms on her students. The teacher was especially troubled that the school neither sought parental consent nor even notified parents that their children were being screened by amateurs for mental-health issues. As the mother of public-school students, she worried that other teachers were completing this assessment on her children.

Banfield then contacted a sales representative from Devereaux to ask if DESSA is in fact a psychological evaluation. He confirmed that it is. He also revealed that, pursuant to a federal grant, Plymouth State University is providing DESSA free of charge to some New Hampshire schools — in return for which, the schools give PSU information on children through the DESSA screening software so that PSU can evaluate the children’s social-emotional competencies. Whether than information is personally identifiable is unclear.

Banfield points out how this universal screening benefits the corporate vendors as well as the socially engineering government:

DESSA is there to rate students on their behaviors but then to offer intervention to improve their scores. Social awareness is one of the key competencies to ensure the students are aware and accepting of race and diversity. These software programs profit 3rd party vendors when they sell the program to your school district. The [vendor] then collects non-academic data on your child, rates your child’s behaviors and attitudes, then makes more money by selling products to correct them.

There are certainly children with mental-health problems who could benefit from professional help. But screening every child, using questionable assessment tools administered by untrained personnel, and producing bogus evaluations that could haunt the child for years, is a terrible way to address this situation. Only licensed professionals — authorized by a child’s parents and subject to strict standards of ethics and confidentiality — should be allowed to assess, counsel, or treat.

This case study demonstrates that too many public schools no longer focus on imparting academic knowledge. Rather, egged on by the federal government and private players, they consider children to be patients in need of treatment to dislodge personality characteristics that don’t match the government’s preferred profile. Parents should demand answers about how much of this is going on in their children’s schools and tell the officials responsible: “Not with my child.”

Emmett McGroarty

Emmett McGroarty is the director of APP Education.

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