Psychometric Testing

by Claire Walsh and David Hoad

Common questions

  1. What is psychometric testing?
  2. What are psychometric profiles and assessments?
  3. What sorts of tests are there?
  4. What are psychometric tests used for?
  5. What are their benefits?
  6. What are their disadvantages?
  7. What are assessment centres?
  8. What does the law say about psychometric testing?
  9. What about on-line testing?
  10. What should I expect if I’m asked to take a psychometric test?

 

1. What is psychometric testing?

Psychometric testing is the use of scientifically-designed measures of a facet of human psychology. In organisations, this usually means some sort of question-and-answer method of establishing someone’s abilities, or their personality characteristics, or some other aspect of their mind or thinking. A well-designed and properly-used test will give objective results, usually with scores indicating the strength of the characteristic(s) being tested. Often, these results can be compared with those of other people in an appropriate ‘norm group’ (a classified grouping of previous test takers – UK graduates, for example) to make them even more meaningful and useful.

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2. What are psychometric profiles and assessments?

In this section, we are using the term ‘psychometric testing’ rather loosely to cover all the different uses of psychometrics in organisations, and in practice various terms, such as tests, inventories, profiles and assessments, are often used rather vaguely and interchangeably. To be more precise, psychometric testing is usually about finding how good or successful someone is in a particular skill area (for example, verbal or numerical reasoning).

By contrast, psychometric profiling is more often used when we are talking about ‘building a picture’ of a person or group. This may involve using one or more psychometric tools that will usually describe the person/group in terms of their characteristics (for example, personality traits or occupational interests).

Psychometric assessment is the use of tests, profiles or a combination of them to gauge a wider aspect of the person, such as their suitability for a particular job.

Sometimes, psychometric tests or other forms of assessment are referred to as instruments or tools or just ‘psychometrics’.

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3. What sorts of tests are there?

There are not only thousands of individual tests in existence, but many different types of test. The first major difference between tests is in their purpose – that is, what a specific test is designed to measure, such as

  • Personality traits or preferences
  • Skills and abilities
  • Interests
  • Values.

Secondly, there are also substantial differences in the kind of questions or ‘items’ that the tests contain. A test might consist of reasoning problems to be solved within a fixed time. In a test of this type, there is usually only one correct answer to each question (a bit like school tests in maths or comprehension). In another test, you might have to choose between two or more answers, according to your opinions or preferences – thus indicating aspects of your personality, or perhaps your work interests.

Thirdly, there is a variety of ways of taking and reporting tests, such as paper and pencil tests and on-line questionnaires.

Lastly, there are differences in the way test results are scored and presented. They may give you a simple percentage of correctly-answered questions. Some compare your results with a suitable sample of people who have previously taken the test. Others show, for example, how much you, individually, prefer one thing to another (for example, reading compared with sport), but without comparing you to other people.

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4. What are psychometric tests used for?

Tests are used in many educational, work and clinical situations where the test user wants to measure an aspect of the mind. In the work situation, tests and other forms of psychometrics are typically used to

  • Develop people in their role or career through a better understanding of their characteristics and how they differ from others
  • Assess suitability for particular jobs, on the basis that particular abilities or other attributes are an indicator of likely success in the job
  • Help identify training and development needs.

It is important to note that tests are designed for specific reasons and may not be suitable in all contexts. For example, some tests are not suitable for recruitment and selection purposes. If in doubt, you should always discuss uses with the test provider.

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5. What are their benefits?

When properly selected and used, psychometric tests can be of great benefit to both employers and employees in, for example, assessing job-related competencies. Choosing the wrong person for the job can be a significant cost to an organisation in terms of disruption and money (tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in the case of a management or specialist post), as well as being demoralising for the person mistakenly appointed. In career and development work, tests and profiles can help people better understand their interests, ambitions and motivations, as well as their abilities and aptitudes.

Most tests are also difficult to ‘fake’, and so will often give a more accurate indication of a characteristic than may be gained just through interviewing, role-plays and so on. They are also objective: they exclude ‘good impressions’, personal preferences and other distorting factors, and enable one person to be accurately compared with another, in a fair and unbiased way.

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6. What are their disadvantages?

There are no substantial disadvantages to psychometric tests when they are suitable for the intended purpose and used well, so the main problems occur if they are selected or used unprofessionally. For example, using a personality test on its own is of limited use in selection, where the main focus should be on abilities and competencies (though personality traits may indicate resilience, culture fit and so on). Similarly, relying too much on psychometric tests of any kind – even when used well – is usually not helpful; tests are best used in a well-planned combination with other techniques, such as with structured competency interviewing in selection, or with coaching in career counselling.

There is also a risk that inexpert users may make inaccurate interpretations of test results, which does a disservice to user, taker and the organisation, and also damages the credibility of the use of tests.

Among other pitfalls are the use of tests that (usually inadvertently) discriminate unfairly against some test-takers; for example, some job applicants might be disadvantaged because of cultural differences, sight problems or English language skills, even though these factors may not be relevant to suitability for a particular role.

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7. What are assessment centres?

Assessment centres are not usually physical locations, as the name might suggest. They are planned sets of activities that are normally used to thoroughly assess suitability for particular jobs. Typically, an assessment centre event may include some appropriate psychometrics, competency-based interviews, and some other activities, such as role-plays, work simulations (for example an In-Tray exercise), or group discussions. A good assessment centre will usually provide at least two different ways of assessing each important component of job success, so providing a matrix of information about the individual.

Because they take up a lot of time, specialist staffing and other resources, assessment centres are usually only carried out for more senior or specialist positions, where the cost of getting it wrong is greater. They can also be cost-effective when a number of people are being recruited to one type of position, such as graduate entrants, for example, or a new sales team.

Note that the term development centre is sometimes confused with assessment centre (even by the users), but the former is, in fact, a similarly-structured event that is designed to look at the abilities and development needs for a number of existing employees – perhaps to help plan training programmes or career paths, or to formulate succession plans.

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8. What does the law say about psychometric testing?

The simple answer is very little, if anything. The main occasions when testing and the law collide are when the use of a test discriminates unfairly and unlawfully against someone, as described in Question 6, above. For helpful information on unlawful discrimination at work, see www.acas.org.uk – the website of the Arbitration & Conciliation Advisory Service.

Test results which identify individuals (or personal information about them) will also be subject to the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

There are, though, various codes of conduct for psychometric testing which aim to avoid discrimination and to promote ‘best practice’ aspects of testing. These are usually published by the professional organisations most involved with testing, such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development (CIPD) – see Want to know more?

The other legal aspect of psychometrics is one that applies to any original written intellectual property: the law of copyright. Good tests take many years of development and a lot of investment of resources before they become fully effective, so publishers generally do everything they can to protect their copyright. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and use illegal copies of tests and materials; stick within the contractual and licence agreements, and avoid your organisation being taken to court. (If you are a charity or other not-for-profit organisation, contact the test publishers to discuss your needs – they’ll often have concessionary rates, or at least be open to negotiation).

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9. What about on-line testing?

On-line testing is essentially the same as any other method, where the test-taker inputs answers via a keyboard (or mouse) and computer screen, instead of making marks on a paper sheet.

There are, though, some significant advantages to online testing (and some disadvantages).

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10. What should I expect if I’m asked to take a psychometric test?

You should be told what sort of tests and other assessment procedures will be used (though not necessarily the exact name of the test), why it is being used, and what arrangements are in place for feedback afterwards.

If you are given an ability test, there will usually be some practice questions for completion under supervision. There may well be help available from the test administrator if you don’t understand how to tackle them, but obviously not assistance with the actual test. For all tests, there are likely to be some sample questions and instructions on how to complete the answer sheet, along with any time limits that apply.

Don’t be frightened to ask for information from the organisation asking you to take the test (or from the test publisher, if known). It is in everybody’s interests that you do your best, so don’t let ‘the unknown’ get in the way and put you off.

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