The National Pulse

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.

  • This is just one more reason, stacked on top of the hundred or so others, that we choose to homeschool. We only hope that Texas won’t won’t pass a “school choice” option with money attached for homeschoolers. Any time the government “gives” something, they expect something in return.

    I do thank all of you though, who are fighting the good fight against the encroachment of the proggressive agenda in our public schools. Once they have figured out how to completely control public education, they will turn their eyes to private and home schools.

  • The PACE assessments do not assess the disposition of the students taking the assessment. They assess the student’s abilities in much better ways than any classic standardized tests. The DESSA is not related in any way to the PACE assessments.

  • First contact your school Superintendent and ask them if they are using the DESSA screening tool. Then ask how they are going to assess social and emotional learning. Let them know that you do not want any assessment done on your children.

    The problem is, this is coming through “competency based” learning and a few years ago, the state passed a law that now requires schools to use the Competency Based Learning Model (workforce model)

    We are seeing students tested on their “dispositions” with the PACE assessment. Teachers in Nashua reported that the Smarter Balanced Assessment is more like a psychological evaluation. The standardized assessments collects data on your children.

    Parents are refusing to let their children take the standardized tests.

    Here’s a few things you can do:
    1) Refuse all state standardized tests
    PACE/Smarter Balanced/ SAT & make sure you inform your local school board what is going on
    2) REFUSE the DESSA screening tool or any other social and emotional screening tool.
    3) Notify your state Representatives and Senator to STOP the Competency Based Ed model because it’s used to assess students’ behaviors and attitudes.
    4) Contact the State Board of Education and Commissioner and tell them that we do not want our children psychologically tested and profiled through the standardized tests.
    Tell them to STOP Competency Based Education in NH and return to “achievement testing” of knowledge ONLY.

    Finally, please share this article with your friends/neighbors to make them aware of what’s going on in your schools.

    For more information on this see:

  • Here are the districts currently using the PACE assessment. PACE also assesses your child’s “dispositions.”

    Sanborn Regional
    Souhegan HS
    Seacoast Charter
    SAU#35 White Mountains (as negotiated with USED)
    Fall Mountain
    SAU #23 No Haverhill
    SAU #58 Grovetown
    SAU #39 Amherst & Mont Vernon
    SEE: how PACE lists Sanborn as a participating district and assessing “dispositions” here:

    If your school is NOT listed, contact your local school board and request that your district NOT use the PACE assessment. It’s easier to REFUSE the Smarter Balanced (1x/year) then it is to try to refuse the multiple PACE assessments.

    If your district is NOT listed, it is possible the administration will sign up to use the PACE assessments in the future. Make sure you are communicating that you do NOT want PACE in your district.

    Below is the list of schools that are using the DESSA psychological screening tool and sending that information to Plymouth State:
    Bow Elementary School
    Franklin School District
    Paul Smith Elementary
    Franklin Middle School
    Franklin High School
    Hillsboro-Deering Elementary School
    Lisbon Regional School
    Plainfield Elementary School
    Winnisquam School District
    Sanbornton Central School
    Union Sanborn School
    Southwick School

    If you live in any of these districts, please contact me directly.

    Some schools are using the DESSA tool but not sending the data to Plymouth State. I do not have a list of those schools available at this time. Contact your school directly to see if they are using the DESSA screening tool or any other psychological screening tool to assess social and emotional dispositions.

  • How can we find out if this is happening in our kids’ school? Thank you for this information.

  • I agree with the previous comment and would like to know if this is happening in Iowa

  • would like to know if this is happening in the Sutton area. I do not want my child involved in such a stupid testing. Who comes up with this trash and then allows it?