What are career and personnel testing?

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The popularity of career and personnel testing reflects the trend toward the utilization of interest surveys, ability and aptitude tests, and personality tests for the systematic development of personal careers.
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Psychologists have developed numerous testing devices for assessing human capabilities. The groups of tests that have been used most frequently for career and personnel purposes have been those measuring interests, abilities and aptitudes, personality, and values.

Inventories that survey interest patterns are useful in providing indications of the areas in which individuals might work. Research by psychologist Edward K. Strong Jr. has shown that people in the same line of work also tend to have similar hobbies, like the same types of books and magazines, and prefer the same types of entertainment.

Psychological research by John L. Holland concluded that most occupations can be grouped into six vocational themes reflecting certain employment preferences: “realistic,” favoring technical and outdoor activities such as mechanical, agricultural, and nature jobs; “investigative,” interested in the natural sciences, medicine, and the process of investigation; “artistic,” favoring self-expression and dramatics such as the musical, literary, and graphic art occupations; “social,” reflecting an interest in helping others, as in teaching and social service; “enterprising,” interested in persuasion and political power, as in management, sales, politics, and other areas of leadership; and “conventional,” including enjoyment of procedures and organization such as office practices, clerical, and quantitative interest areas.

Tests that measure ability include intelligence tests, achievement tests, and aptitude tests. Intelligence tests purport to measure objectively a person’s potential to learn, independent of prior learning experiences. Attempting such objective measurement is a highly complex task; whether it can truly be achieved is open to debate. The very concept of “intelligence,” in fact, has been controversial from its inception. The most highly developed tests of individual intelligence include updated versions of the Stanford-Binet test, a scale originally developed in 1916, and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, originally developed in 1939.

Achievement tests are designed to measure how much a person has learned of specific material to which he or she has been previously exposed. Aptitude tests measure a personal ability or quality (such as musical or mechanical aptitude) to predict some future performance. For example, the military would like to be able to predict the likelihood that a given candidate for pilot training will successfully complete the complicated and expensive course of training. Flying a plane requires good physical coordination and a good sense of mechanical matters, among other things. Therefore, candidates for flight training are given a battery of aptitude tests, which include tests of mechanical aptitude and eye-hand coordination, to estimate later performance in flight training. People who score poorly on such aptitude tests tend to fail pilot training.

Psychologists recognize that it is important to understand a person’s interests and abilities—and personality tendencies—if a thorough appraisal of career potentials is to be made. Personality tests, also often known as personality rating scales, measure dispositions, traits, or tendencies to behave in a typical manner. Personality tests are described as either objective (a structured test) or subjective (a projective personality test). Objective tests are structured by providing a statement and then requiring two or more alternative responses, such as in true-or-false questions in the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet. In contrast, projective personality tests ask open-ended questions or provide ambiguous stimuli that require spontaneous responses (as in the Rorschach inkblot test). The two types of personality test reveal different information about the respondent.

The development of objective personality tests was greatly improved when studies showed that personality tests did not have to rely completely on face validity, or the apparent accuracy of each test question. Through empirical research, the accuracy of a question can be tied to the likelihood of a question being associated with certain behavior. Consequently, it does not matter whether a person answers the question “I am not aggressive” as either “true” or “false.” What does matter is whether that question is accurately associated with aggressive or nonaggressive behavior for a significant number of people who answer it in a particular way. This approach is referred to as criterion keying: The items in a test are accurately associated with certain types of behavior regardless of the face validity of each question.

Beginning with Gordon Allport’s study of values, psychologists have recognized that personal values affect individual career choices. Allport found six general values that are important to most individuals: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious. Occupational values represent a grouping of needs, just as abilities represent a grouping of work skills. René Dawis and Lloyd Lofquist found that there are six occupational values: achievement, comfort, status, altruism, safety, and autonomy.

Testing in Practice

For people to enter careers that will be satisfactory for them, it is desirable to make an effort to match their personal interests with the day-to-day activities of the careers they will eventually choose. Interest inventories are one method of helping people make career choices that compare their interest patterns with the activities of persons in the occupation they hope to enter.

The Strong Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB) was developed by Strong. It matches the interests of a person to the interests and values of a criterion group of employed people who were happy in the careers they have chosen. This procedure is an example of criterion keying. Strong revised the SVIB in 1966, using 399 items to relate to fifty-four occupations for men and a separate form for thirty-two occupations for women. The reliability of this test to measure interests is quite good, and validity studies indicate that the SVIB is effective in predicting job satisfaction.

The Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory (SCII) was developed by psychologist D. T. Campbell as a revision of the SVIB. In this test, items from the men’s and women’s forms were merged into a single scale, reducing the likelihood of gender bias, a complaint made about the SVIB. Campbell developed a theoretical explanation of why certain types of people like working in certain fields; he based it on Holland’s theory of vocational choice. Holland postulated that interests are an expression of personality and that people can be classified into one or more of six categories according to their interests and personality. Campbell concluded that the six personality factors in Holland’s theory were quite similar to the patterns of interest that had emerged from many years of research on the SVIB. Therefore, Holland’s theory became incorporated into the SCII. The SCII places individuals into one of the six Holland categories, or groupings of occupations, with each group represented by a national sample.

The Kuder Occupational Interest Survey (KOIS) was first developed in 1939. This survey also examines the similarity between the respondent’s interests and the interests of people employed in different occupations. It can provide direction in the selection of a college major. Studies on the predictive validity of the KOIS indicate that about half of a selected group of adults who had been given an early version of the inventory when they were in high school were working in fields that the inventory suggested they enter. The continuing development of this measure suggests that it may be quite useful for guidance decisions for high school and college students.

The Self-Directed Search (SDS) was developed by Holland as a means of matching the interests and abilities of individuals with occupations that have the same characteristics. Holland uses a typology that groups occupations in the categories of realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. There are three forms of the SDS: Form E is designed for use with middle-school students or older individuals with limited reading ability; Form R is for use with high school students, college students, or adults; and Form CP is designed for use with college students and adults. The test is also available in other languages, such as Spanish.

Several ability and aptitude tests have been used in making decisions concerning employment, placement, and promotion. The Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT), later renamed the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, was based on the Otis Self-Administering Tests of Mental Ability. The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test is a quick test of mental ability in adults. Normative data are available for more than fifty thousand adults between twenty and seventy-five years of age. The Revised Minnesota Paper Form Board Test (RMPFBT) is a revision of a study in the measurement of mechanical ability. The RMPFBT is a twenty-minute speed test consisting of two-dimensional diagrams cut into separate parts. The test seems to measure those aspects of mechanical ability requiring the capacity to visualize and manipulate objects in space. It appears to be related to general intelligence.

The US Department of Labor developed an instrument to measure abilities known as the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB). The GATB measures nine specific abilities: general learning, verbal ability, numerical ability, spatial ability, form perception, clerical perception, eye-hand coordination, finger dexterity, and manual dexterity. Another ability test that was developed by the US government is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The ASVAB is used by the Department of Defense to assist individuals in identifying occupations that match their personal characteristics.

Personality tests were developed in an effort to gain greater understanding about how an individual is likely to behave. As tests have been improved, specific traits and characteristics have been associated with career development, such as leadership propensities or control of impulses. Several personality tests have been used in career and personality development. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF) is the 2008 version of a scale developed in 1943 by S. R. Hathaway and J. C. McKinley. The test was designed to distinguish normal from abnormal behavior. It was derived from a pool of one thousand items selected from a wide variety of sources. The California Psychological Inventory (CPI) was developed by Harrison Gough in 1957 and was revised in 1987. The test is regarded as a good measure for assessing normal individuals for interpersonal effectiveness and internal controls.

The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) was developed by Raymond Cattell in 1949 and was revised in 1993. Considerable effort has been expended to provide a psychometrically sound instrument to measure personality, and it remains an exemplary illustration of the factor-analytic approach to measuring personality traits. The Personality Research Form (PRF) was developed by Douglas Jackson in 1967. It was based on Henry A. Murray’s theory of needs. The PRF includes two validity scales and twenty multidimensional scales of personality traits. It has been favorably reviewed for its psychometric rigor and is useful in relating personality tendencies to strengths and weaknesses in working within a corporate or employment setting.

Tests to measure occupational values include the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire (MIQ), developed by David Weiss, René Dawis, and Lloyd Lofquist, and the Values Scale (VS), developed by Doris Nevill and Donald Super. The MIQ compares individual needs with reinforcers found in occupations. The VS measures work values that are commonly sought by workers, such as personal development and achievement. The values in the test are also cross-referenced with the occupational groups found in Holland’s typology.

An alternative to paper-and-pen tests is the use of computerized career guidance systems, which may consist of specialized software or web-based programs. The common elements of these systems include the use of an assessment instrument, the provision of an individualized detailed occupational profile, and instructions on how to use the information in career planning.

Functions of Testing

These instruments are examples of tests that are frequently used for career and personnel assessment. The range of psychological assessment procedures includes not only standardized ability tests, interest surveys, personality inventories and projective instruments, and diagnostic and evaluative devices but also performance tests, biographical data forms, scored application blanks, interviews, experience requirement summaries, appraisals of job performance, and estimates of advancement potential. All these devices are used, and they are explicitly intended to aid employers who make hiring decisions to choose, select, develop, evaluate, and promote personnel. Donald N. Bersoff notes that the critical element in the use of any psychological test for career and employment purposes is that employers must use psychometrically sound and job-relevant selection devices. Such tests must be scientifically reliable (appropriate, meaningful, or useful for the inferences drawn from them) and valid (measuring what they claim to measure).

Each of the test procedures previously described would be used for different purposes. Ability tests can be used to determine whether a person has the potential ability to learn a certain job or specific skills. Ability tests are used for positions that do not have a minimum educational prerequisite (such as high school, college, or professional degree). They are also used to select already employed individuals for challenging new work assignments and for promotion to a more demanding employment level. The United States Supreme Court has held that the appropriate use of “professionally developed ability tests” is an acceptable employment practice; however, the employer must demonstrate a relationship between the relevance of the selection test procedure and job qualification. This requirement is to ensure that the ability test provides a fair basis for selection and is nondiscriminatory. The goal of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to eliminate discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in all of its forms. The use of a selection procedure or test must meet this standard.

Interest inventories have been developed to identify a relationship between the activities a person enjoys and the activities of a certain occupation. For example, a salesperson should enjoy meeting people and persuading others to accept his or her viewpoint. An interest inventory can validly link a person’s preferences and interests with associated social activities and can thereby identify sales potential. Interest inventories are frequently given when an employer seeks more information that could lead to a good match between a prospective employee and a job’s requirements. Interest inventories typically survey a person’s interests in leisure or sports activities, types of friends, school subjects, and preferred reading material.

Personality, or behavior traits, can be identified by test inventories and related to requisite employment activities. Once again, these personality dimensions must be demonstrated to be job-related and must be assessed reliably from a performance appraisal of the specific position to be filled. For example, behavior traits such as “drive” or “dependability” could be validated for use in promoting individuals to supervisory bank teller positions if demonstrated to be job-related and assessed reliably from a performance appraisal.

The use of psychological tests has grown immensely since the mid-twentieth century. Increased public awareness, the proliferation of different tests, and the use of computer technology with tests indicate that continually improving career and personnel tests will emerge. Yet these developments should proceed only if testing can be conducted while protecting the human rights of consumers—including their right not to be tested and their right to know test scores and how test-based decisions will affect their lives. Psychological testing must also be nondiscriminatory and must protect the person’s right to privacy. Psychologists are ethically and legally bound to maintain the confidentiality of their clients.

Making a selection among the many published psychological tests is a skill requiring experienced psychologists. In personnel selection, the psychologist must determine if the use of a psychological test will improve the selection process above what is referred to as the base rate, or the probability of an individual succeeding at a job without any selection procedure. Consequently, the use of a test must be based on its contributing something beyond chance alone. This requirement necessitates that a test be reasonably valid and reliable, in that it consistently tests what it was designed to test. Consequently, the use of a test is only justified when it can contribute to the greater likelihood of a successful decision than would be expected by existing base rates.

Existing theories of career selection have related career choices to personal preferences, developmental stages, and the type of relationship a person has had with his or her family during childhood. More extensive research will continue to assess other relationships between one’s psychological makeup and successful career selection. This positive beginning should eventually result in more innovative, more objective, and more valid psychological tests that will greatly enhance future career and personnel selection.


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