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The History of Skills Testing

Posted by Michael D. Haberman

skills testing

Imagine sitting down for an interview and having the interviewer introduce the company phrenologist to you. The phrenologist proceeds to feel your skull and, making an assessment of the bumps on your skull, determines if you are going to be a good fit for the company. At one point in time, including in the 19th century, some organizations have used this pseudoscience to make determinations on the suitability of individuals. Fortunately, this is not a widely used assessment tool.

The use of other assessments and skills tests is pretty widespread in the business world. As employers move toward data-driven decisions, hiring assessments provide data points that allow employers to make better-informed decisions in the area most critical to the company’s success-people. Making the wrong decision can be very expensive, so HR departments are using tools to help hiring managers make better-informed decisions. Have you ever wondered about the history behind these tools?

Early history of skills testing

The first use of standardized tests dates back to 605 AD in China. A nationwide standardized test, called the imperial examination, was used to select people for government positions. This method of merit examination influenced the West, especially the British, who adopted this kind of examination process for its selection of government employees. The US also eventually adopted a merit-based civil service selection process to put an end to the “spoils system,” the process by which people who supported an incoming president were given jobs as a favor, regardless of their skill.

As time went on, many types of personality assessments were developed. One famous test used in the early 20th century is the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). Established as a way of determining psychopathology, it was used in some cases as an assessment tool for hiring until the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) halted its use as a violation of the standards of non-discrimination.

Established in 1943 was the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Inventory). A popular assessment for a number of things, including executive development, it was inspired by the work of renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. While useful for staff development, it has its limitations in the selection of candidates.

EEOC issues

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting the discrimination that once led to unfair terminations and limited opportunities for people to be hired, promoted, or trained. Afterwards, those doing the hiring had to ensure the assessments they used did not lead to discriminatory practices. The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, established in 1978 , specifically addressed the use of tests that lead to either intentional discrimination or disparate impact discrimination. The Supreme Court case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. established the concept of disparate impact and set the standard of the 80% rule to prove a test’s reliability and validity. For a decade the testing industry had to adapt to these standards, and the use of assessments waned.

Anyone using tests as part of their selection process must make sure that the test actually measures what is supposed to measure (validity) and can do so repeatedly (reliability). If a test or assessment can’t do this, it does not meet the legal standard of the EEOC. The 80% rule requires an employer to measure the selection rate of candidates, and, if the selection rates of classes of employees (for example, women or minorities) do not equal or exceed 80% of the selection rate belonging to the highest group, then disparate impact is occurring and the test must be flawed. Employers must be careful not to violate these requirements and must be sure to use statistically verified testing processes.

Modern use of selection assessments

Today the use of assessment tools has rebounded significantly, and a wide variety of assessment tools are used. The ability to take an assessment online, from anywhere in the world, has made the use of assessments much more attractive than they once were. Algorithms score the test quickly and easily and provide feedback and interpretation to the employer almost immediately. A wide variety of instruments can be used this way: Cognitive Ability Tests, Integrity Tests, Interviews, Job Knowledge Tests, and Personality Tests can all be conducted online and provide quick and accurate data. As we make data-driven decisions for hiring, we need robust assessments to help us find the best hires in a way that is EEOC compliant.

The value of skills assessments

Employees have truly become the “most valuable asset” of companies, and the hiring process is critically important. Hiring the wrong person can cost a company money, time, resources and reputation. Hiring the right person gives a company a major competitive advantage. Assessment results provide a valuable set of data to make proper hiring decisions. Today assessments have become what ERE Media has called an “above the funnel” necessity.

eSkill as an option

eSkill was founded in 2000 to provide web-based access to online skills testing. eSkill can help companies “more effectively place qualified and talented individuals into critical jobs by using relevant assessments of the required knowledge and skills.” With a wide array of tools that can be customized to an employer’s need and through maintaining the standards of validity and reliability, eSkill can help any employer improve their selection process. This process can be scaled to any size organization. Companies like Zappos, General Electric, and Coca-Cola Bottling use eSkill to make better employee selections.

Nothing but value

Dr. Charles Handler, writing for ERE, says “Data is the new superstar of the HR world and it is essential for showing the value assessment can provide as a legitimate business tool….The continued evolution of analytics and big data will provide ongoing proof of the value of assessments.”

I have used assessment in a number of positions and find them to be valuable tools for my clients. I think any organization that does not use assessments in their selection process is ceding the best talent available to their competitors and dooming themselves to a lesser place in their marketplace.

People are your competitive edge. Why not make sure you have the best you can get?

About Michael D. Haberman

Author

Michael D. Haberman is Vice-President and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc., a consulting and services company offering complete Human Resources solutions. As the former founder and President of MDH Consulting, a Human Resources consulting firm, Mike has more than 35 years of experience in Human Resources, and he uses his broad-based background to help companies solve employee problems and deal with governmental compliance.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Ronald June, 06, 2017

    I really liked your article. Skills assessment tools and tests are the best thing that ever happened for the management workforce and talent management.

  • Kamelia June, 06, 2017

    I was reading that standardized testing was not traditionally a part of Western pedagogy because Westerners were skeptical of the results. They favored non-standardized assessments, using essays written by students. Imagine this in today’s HR world . . . The results can’t be checked for validity and reliability. Today, essays are of little use, unless the position requires a creative person, a writer or copywriter.

  • Ophelia E. June, 06, 2017

    Thank you for this article, I think the most important part of the standardized test is the validity and reliability. If it’s not EEOC compliant, forget about it.

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Guest June, 06, 2017