Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Psychometric testing on the rise

Can the psychometric testing system, now used by 80 percent of top firms, really tell whether you're up to the job?

By Alok Jha  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

As if sending in a resume, preparing a presentation and surviving grillings by humorless interviewers were not enough hoops for job applicants to jump through, employers are now increasingly adding another test to their arsenal, one in which charm and preparation are less useful -- psychometrics.

A survey carried out by Test Agency Hogrefe last year found 80 percent of the FTSE top 100 companies (listed on the London Stock Exchange) used some kind of psychometric evaluation, and the number of companies using them is rising. When Rupert Murdoch wanted to parachute his son James into the top job at BSkyB in 2003, Murdoch Jr first had to sit through a battery of tests. Fortunately for him, he sailed through.

"A psychometric test is an assessment exercise that has been designed to measure a clearly defined aspect of functioning," says Wendy Lord, chief psychologist at Test Agency Hogrefe. "A lot of companies will introduce tests because they are seen as fair and objective."

The British Psychological Society is a big proponent of psychometric techniques and runs its own certification program for human resources staff to qualify in running tests. Its Web site provides a focus for the latest research and new techniques in psychometrics, itself a growing academic discipline with a strong grounding in scientific principles.

"It has been shown that the single best predictor of job performance tends to be general intelligence -- that's fairly widely accepted these days," says Colin Cooper, a psychologist at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"A big meta-analysis done last year looked at the size of the relationship between test scores and a huge range of job-related behaviors. It found that for a huge variety of jobs -- from office work to van driving to management -- the higher your test score, the higher you scored within that particular job," he says.

Psychometrics evolved from this need to examine ability. At the end of the 19th century, French psychologist Alfred Binet worked on some of the first tests to measure children's ability. The US army developed its own tests to help recruit fresh troops for World War I, the so-called Alpha tests designed to work quickly through the hundreds of thousands of applicants and work out who had the required education and background.

More notoriously, the tests went through a period of popularity with eugenicists -- something psychologists are still trying to live down -- with the invention of IQ and aptitude tests.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of psychometric test. The first measures ability -- verbal or numerical reasoning, for example.

The second measures personality traits such as how a person might behave in a given situation or what motivates them.

In the world of work, tests are increasingly tailored to the jobs they are used for.

"The choice of test is absolutely crucial," Lord says. "In order to decide to use a test, you must first analyze a job in terms of what makes one person more successful at it than another. You must be absolutely clear that what you're measuring is relevant to job performance." he says.

Building a test from scratch involves plenty of groundwork. John Rust, professor of psychometrics at City University, London, England, and new director of the Cambridge Assessment Center, UK, says psychometric tests must satisfy four central ideals: They must work in the same way for all participants, actually measure what they claim to measure, be free from bias and have the capability to be standardized.

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