Aptitude Testing

Assessing the Potential for Success

Assess aptitude before investing in development.

© iStockphoto/PetrePleasea

We all know how important it is to hire the right person for a job.

Someone who doesn't have the right skills for a position, or who isn't a good fit with the corporate culture, often ends up being replaced.

Then you need to fill the position again, and turnover costs and lost opportunities can be significant.

To make better hiring decisions and avoid high job turnover rates, organizations often use ability testing. Companies also use these tests for promoting and training. The goal is to get the right people, with the right skills, in the right jobs.

Traditionally, the process for assessing current or prospective workers has been subjective. Managers use their feelings, observations, judgments, and life experiences to evaluate candidates. For example, when you interview someone, you try to be objective – but you know that your personal beliefs and values often keep you from being totally objective.

So, how can you be more "scientific" about evaluating people? Psychological testing offers a way to go beyond the subjective – and find a more objective way to assess someone's personal attributes. Even then, subjectivity is still part of the process, but that's not always a bad thing. It would be unwise to completely ignore our perceptions and feelings about others. However, our perceptions can benefit from a little objectivity.

Ability Testing

Under the larger umbrella of psychological tests, ability tests assess what a person is capable of doing. Abilities are then further broken down into two areas:

  1. Achievements – What has the individual learned to do in the past?
  2. Aptitudes – What can the individual learn or develop in the future?

Much of our recruitment and development assessment focuses on achievement. What education does the candidate have? What skills does he possess? What training has she completed? What has he accomplished? What is her performance record?

Understanding a person's development potential for the future, however, offers some exciting opportunities to find the best candidates for your organization's long-term well-being.

Tip:

Clearly, aptitude and achievement are not completely independent of each other. For example, if a child is an accomplished athlete, she probably has athletic aptitude. It's important to remember that ability tests measure current behavior, and that behavior is influenced by past experiences. Current behavior also reflects a person's unique and natural traits, potential, and limitations. This is where aptitude plays an important role.

Interest Versus Aptitude

Interest and aptitude are not the same thing. You may be interested in auto mechanics, but if you have low manual dexterity, then you're unlikely to show much aptitude for it, so you have a low potential for success.

On the other hand, a high aptitude for a certain hobby or profession also doesn't guarantee success. A person generally has to be interested in something to be motivated to do it well.

When using aptitude tests, it's important to remember that both interest and aptitude are necessary conditions for successful performance – but neither is sufficient on its own.

Benefits of Aptitude Testing

The following are some of the strengths of aptitude tests:

  • They offer efficient, objective comparisons – The main reason companies use aptitude testing is to improve the quality of hiring and promoting. Tests are often much more efficient than interviews for determining if a person has the potential to do a job well. And when designed properly, aptitude tests can fairly and objectively compare and contrast the potential of different candidates.
  • Reputable tests are standardized – With standardization, you know the test is both valid and reliable, so you can be assured of a fair process. And if your recruitment practices are legally challenged at some point, the tests may help prove that you provide equal opportunity employment.

    Tip:

    Before using any tests in your hiring and promoting process, consult an expert in labor and employment laws in your country. Make sure you meet all legal requirements for testing. Also, ask to see validation studies on a test before using it in your recruitment process.

  • They help you 'screen in' aptitudes for key competency areas – For example, in a retail setting, customer service aptitude is crucial. Some numerical ability is also good if you want your salespeople to run the cash register. With an aptitude test, you can quickly identify the training needs of your staff and determine how successful the training will likely be. Aptitude tests help show you whether the training program will be suitable or too difficult for the applicant.
  • They're easy and cost-effective to deliver – Many of the original 'pencil and paper' tests are now scored by computers, making them a very efficient testing resource.

Potential Problems of Aptitude Testing

  • They may have a cultural bias – We develop our abilities and achievements through experience. And our experience includes our background, education, opportunities, and home environment. All of this can affect testing results. For instance, most aptitude tests involve reading, so if you lack experience in reading, you're at a disadvantage when taking the test. If the test is given in English, and that's your second language, you're disadvantaged.
  • Previous experience impacts performance on any given task – For example, if you helped your mother sew when you were younger, you might show more aptitude for handling small objects than someone who lacks that experience. Or if you do crossword puzzles in your spare time, you would likely perform higher on verbal aptitude tests than someone who isn't used to working with words.
  • There's not a perfect connection between aptitude and performance – As we mentioned earlier, having an aptitude for a certain skill doesn't guarantee that a person will perform that skill well. Many other factors affect performance, including interest, motivation, and training.

The best way to reduce the chance of problems with aptitude tests is to use them as only one part of your overall hiring and promoting process. These tests, by themselves, cannot show a person's potential. You need a balanced approach to your recruitment and development systems.

Choosing an Aptitude Test

There are many aptitude tests for many types of skills. The best way to choose a test is to first consider what you want to determine. Do you want to test general vocational aptitude, specific professional aptitude, or intelligence? Once you know what you're seeking, investigate the options available.

We've listed some common aptitude tests below.

  • Differential aptitude test (DAT) – This tests the following aptitudes:
    • Verbal reasoning.
    • Numerical/mathematical ability.
    • Abstract reasoning.
    • Mechanical reasoning.
    • Space relations.
    • Spelling.
    • Language usage.
    • Perceptual speed and accuracy.
  • Inventory of Work-Relevant Abilities (IWRA) – This is a self-assessment test focusing on these common workplace skills:
    • Meeting people.
    • Helping others.
    • Sales.
    • Leadership/management skills.
    • Organizational skills.
    • Clerical skills.
    • Mechanical skills.
    • Manual dexterity.
    • Numerical/mathematical skills.
    • Scientific skills.
    • Creative/artistic skills.
    • Creative/literary skills.
    • Reading.
    • Language use.
    • Spatial perception.
  • OASIS-3 Aptitude Survey – This measures broad aptitude factors:
    • General ability.
    • Verbal aptitude.
    • Numerical/mathematical aptitude.
    • Spatial aptitude.
    • Perceptual aptitude.
    • Manual dexterity.
  • Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test – This measures three primary aspects of mechanics:
    • Mechanical information.
    • Spatial visualization.
    • Mechanical reasoning and understanding.

One of the best sources of information on aptitude testing, and other types of testing, is the Buros Institute of Mental Measurements. This organization publishes the Mental Measurements Yearbook, and you can also purchase reviews of specific tests.

Tip:

The O*NET Resource Center (sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration) offers two guides for good testing practices.

Key Points

Aptitude tests help reveal the natural talents, strengths, and limitations that we all have.

The process of assessing people is very complex and involves many different factors. Organizations are using aptitude testing increasingly frequently to improve their recruitment and development processes. When you test people's aptitudes, you look beyond what they've done in the past – and you assess what they have the potential to achieve in the future.

You must first understand what you want to accomplish with your testing process, and then find the appropriate test. By doing a little research, carefully choosing your tests, and combining them with other assessment methods, you can improve your hiring and promoting process – and increase the chances of matching the right people with the right jobs.

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