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The adverse impact of ability testing

For my fourth blog post in the series, I’d like to look at some of the biases that are inbuilt in assessment tests and what we can do to make them fairer to ensure that top talent doesn’t slip the net.

The diversity and inclusion agenda has come a long way in recent years as organisations are waking up to the fact that a diverse workforce allowed to flourish in an inclusive environment will have a significant impact on the bottom line. Lots has been written about women and the boardroom and ethnic minority groups, and while progress has been made, there is clearly lots more to do.

Now we’ve all heard about unconscious bias – basically, we tend to make judgements about people and things based on a number of preconceptions we may have, for example about a certain ethnic group. This will in turn affect our judgements and decision making, for example in hiring and developing talent.

I’d like to talk about ‘conscious bias’, in other words the degree of adverse impact on assessment that was deemed tolerable. Let me explain. Historically, assessment specialists would advise companies that a certain amount of unconscious bias was permissible in certain cases. The four-fifths rule brought this to the fore, particularly in US case law and some high profile corporate payouts.

Providing the right blend

So, how does all this affect assessment? Ability testing measuring verbal, numerical or abstract reasoning have been widely used for volume hiring, particularly in assessing graduates to spot future managerial ability. While the research shows that these tests can predict some elements of performance, the problem is they are prone to adverse impact: female candidates, individuals from minority backgrounds and those older in age are less likely to score highly.

Without going in to too much detail – you can read the white paper to learn more – what I will say is that there are alternatives to the traditional ability test and foremost among them is to adopt a blended approach consisting of behavioural, situational and ability tests. The good news for organisations is that they’re not all that expensive to implement either.

Just as organisations are now training their staff on diversity and the impact of unconscious biases, we too in the online assessment industry need to ensure that our tests do not adversely impact certain groups. A blended formula can go a long way to achieving that, ensuring a far more level playing field.

I’ll be getting even more up close and personal with online assessment next time.

Thanks for all your comments so far. Let’s keep the discussion going.

Dr. Alan Bourne is the Managing Director and founder of Sova Assessment Ltd.

Download: ‘The future of online assessment’ white paper (PDF)

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