At-home tests of physical and mental agility are fun, but they're not definitive

Monday, December 13, 2010; 6:03 PM

Tests of physical and mental agility might appear simple and straightforward - what's easier than connecting the dots, for instance, or getting up from a chair, walking and then sitting down again? - but it can take detailed analysis of decades of data to come up with a solid assessment tool.

The Post is offering the tests in the accompanying article for home use. Researchers say it's worth remembering that the information you glean is not going to be particularly reliable: Conclusive tests require a controlled environment and a trained proctor to give and then interpret them. Taking an assessment while sitting in front of the television, standing in line at the coffeshop or lying on the living room couch is likely to skew results.

"If you give yourself the test under nonstandard conditions - if those testing conditions weren't the same as what generated those norms - then you" can't compare your scores with rigorously collected data, says Steven Breckler, the executive director for science at the American Psychological Association. What gives these cognitive tests power is that the research is based on thousands of subjects in controlled situations.

Similarly, researchers and test developers say, because these tests are designed to evaluate a person's current abilities, any preparation - advance knowledge of questions, doing practice problems, etc. - may provide inaccurate scores if a similar test is subsequently taken for diagnostic purposes.

So while it can be fun and interesting to assess yourself with many of the publicly available tests, just remember that they cannot be used to make medical diagnoses.

- Leslie Tamura

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