1994 - Psychometrics and recruiting
Why do recruiters place so much
store on psychometric testing? It is a question
puzzling many would-be barristers who, in spite
of sometimes dazzling academic records, have failed
to win a place at the Bar law school this year.
One of the students who failed
the selection system, which included the use of
a critical reasoning examination - a type of ability
test - was on Tuesday given leave to have a judicial
review of the decision. This will examine the
revised entry procedure, used this year for the
first time in awarding the 800 places on the one-year
vocational course that is the main requirement
for entry to the Bar.
The irony is that the new system,
devised partly to sift out perceived prejudices,
particularly against women and ethnic minority
candidates, appears to have given minorities no
better chance of entry and perhaps less than before.
There may be question marks,
it seems, over the design of the selection system
which was intended to broaden the basis of recruitment
to the Bar. The motive was laudable. But some
believe the law school should no longer retain
its monopoly as the only route to the Bar.
The Council of Legal Education,
which runs the course, is now looking at the possibilities
of making changes to the way the tests are implemented.
It may not have been unreasonable, however, to
introduce additional selection criteria, looking
beyond the possession of university degrees.
Part of any new test might involve
knowledge of the real world with multiple choice
questions such as 'Is Gazza (a) a city in Italy,
(b) a place where Palestinians live, or (c) a
footballer?' It is only two years ago, you may
recall, that the High Court judge, Sir Jeremiah
Harman, asked 'Who is Gazza?' during a court hearing.
Sometimes the way that tests
are applied can make little sense. British Rail
was last year found to have discriminated against
Asian rail guards who wanted to be train drivers.
They were given verbal tests which they failed.
When it was pointed out that verbal skills were
ranked higher in the requirements for the jobs
they were already doing than the jobs they had
applied for, the industrial tribunal had no hesitation
over ruling in their favour.
The problem with psychometric
tests, as in many selection procedures, is probably
one of balance in the way they are used. Finding
that balance, given the continuing debate about
the effectiveness of testing, is proving difficult
and causing confusion among managers interested
in exploring such methods.
Psychometric testing is divided
into two areas - ability tests and personality
tests or questionnaires. While ability tests in
themselves appear to have widespread support among
psychologists, there is dissenting opinion about
the use of personality testing to measure performance
(personality criteria were not used for the bar
Steve Blinkhorn and Charles Johnson,
occupational psychologist at Psychometric Research
and Development, a St Alban's consultancy, earned
the opprobrium of many of their fellow practitioners
three years ago for casting doubt on the use of
personality testing to predict job performance.
They accused those who applied some tests of using
pseudo science which, they said, 'bamboozles an
It was strong stuff, particularly
since it criticised some of the leading tests
on the market. In the April edition of The Psychologist
magazine they buttressed their arguments with
further claims that 'proponents of the use of
personality tests for occupational selection continue
to play fast and loose with statistical methods,
and to make claims which do not stand up to close
Their latest critique in The
Psychologist concluded: 'There is no body of public
knowledge relating scores on personality tests
taken as part of a selection procedure to objective
criteria of later performance sufficient to form
a basis of routine use of the tests, despite 40
or more years of research. Yet their routine use
is widespread and growing.'
Their argument is contradicted
by leading test publishers such as Saville and
Holdsworth. Roy Davis, the company's head of marketing,
said the value of personality questionnaires as
a predictor of success in a job was 'statistically
proven' but, he added, 'they must be used with
No wonder some recruiters have
reservations. Many, however, do not. Employers
appear to be placing increasing trust on the recruitment
skills of their personnel departments who in turn
are often eager to embrace the latest testing
methods. 'Going on tests and training courses
is like getting a badge in the boy scouts for
personnel officers,' said Blinkhorn.
He suggests that psychometric
testing is being commandeered by personnel officers
in order to better define their professional expertise.
If this is true there may well be a danger of
too much weight given to testing in selection.
It should not become the altar on which budding
careers are sacrificed.
Whatever the outcome of the judicial
review in the Bar selection case, the argument
for a more considered evaluation of tests seems
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