Using an Ability Test to Screen Candidates | All You Need to Know

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what is an ability test

Using an Ability Test to Screen Candidates | All You Need to Know

In the pre-employment assessment practices, recruiters and companies use several abilities tests to understand a candidate’s potential to perform in a particular position on job-related tasks. An ability test measures specific abilities that organizations deem necessary according to the job profiles they create. It all sounds simple, but for the sake of clarity, we will discuss several issues today regarding the application of an ability test, its definition, ability test types, and more!

What is an Ability Test?

what is an ability test

As we all know, HR experts and companies’ recruiters use a wide variety of psychometric – ability tests, cognitive tests, personality inventories & questionnaires, etc. – to gain insight into a candidate’s abilities and performance in a work setting.

Ability Test Definition

  • a standardized method of measuring individuals’ thinking capabilities across multiple dimensions to assess their professional performance levels.

Depending on the job and the candidate profile, an ability test can take various forms. Remember that you work with standardized instruments that you have to apply and score on established criteria. In other words, you cannot consider an ability test the same as offering the candidates a sample of work and ask them to solve/complete it.

  • An ability test is usually a strictly timed type of exam that measures a particular aptitude;
  • Recruiters use the tests’ standard scoring systems to compare candidates’ results against each other;
  • The results help HR specialists and companies filter out unsuitable candidates for the respective jobs.

Ability Tests Reveal Employability Skills

Ability tests quicken the hiring process by selecting only the suitable candidates for the following pre-employment assessment stages (personality inventory, formal interview, job-related interview, behavioral interview, etc.).

In the pre-employment assessment practice, we have to admit that there is some confusion regarding ability tests, cognitive tests, intelligence evaluations, hard skills testing, and so on. For this reason, we will discuss more ability test types and classification, helping you understand better what psychometrics to use for your purposes.

However, before we continue, we have to emphasize that an ability test’s purpose is to reveal certain employability skills companies look for in candidates and future employees. We already know that such skills contain hard and soft abilities and aptitudes, so making a couple of distinctions is mandatory at this point.

Ability Test Types and Classifications

Specialists’ consensus is that ability tests come in two major types: physical ability tests and mental ability tests (which you know as cognitive ability tests, although they are not the same).

The Physical Ability Test

The Physical Ability Test (PAT) faces plenty of challenges from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission‘s (EEOC) and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). As you can quickly understand, using poorly validated physical ability tests can go against the principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act, throwing a company in a world of legal trouble.

Surprisingly, when it comes to testing physical abilities, most data and research comes from lawyers and equality advocates rather than from recruiters. Some employers justify the use of PATs with the job requirements and candidates’ profiles. Others go to court because they cross the line regarding how reasonable and job-related physical ability tests are. The issue with PATs is that they carry immense liability if the tests have an adverse or disparate impact.

The governing of the employment tests’ validation framework and rules belongs to the federal Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. According to the guide, PATs come in two categories:

  • Tests built to simulate job-related tasks: object lifting, stair/ladders climbing, equipment pushing/dragging, scaffold work, digging, etc.;
  • Tests built to measure general fitness (balance, aerobic capacity, muscle strength, flexibility, etc.).

Physical Ability Tests’ Limitations and Liabilities

physical ability test

While the first type of test can smoothly receive validation and help companies employ the right people for the job, the second one has become enforcement agencies’ target. The argument is that such fitness tests do not prove job-related validity and are not intuitively relevant for job performance.

If you have to use physical ability tests in the recruitment process, we recommend you follow these recommendations coming from legal experts:

Ensure any PAT is properly validated and is truly testing physical abilities that workers need on the job;

Design PATs to simulate actual job tasks or test the minimum level of fitness/strength required to safely and effectively perform the job. Either approach likely requires an expert validation to show that the PAT is predictive of the ability to perform the essential physical tasks of the job;

Stay vigilant in continuing to reevaluate their tests over time. Because job requirements and qualifications can change, employers may want to periodically revalidate PATs to ensure the tests measure only necessary job skills and that any potentially less adverse options have been considered.

Even if an employer can prove business necessity, the use of a PAT may still be prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if an alternative practice could achieve the employer’s objectives with less adverse impact.

Employers that want to limit exposure may want to evaluate whether their tests are validated appropriately.

Using a physical ability test might be a slippery slope for most recruiters and companies. However, if you follow the legal guidelines and prove the test is relevant to assess a candidate’s job performance, you can include it among your pre-assessment employment tools.

Mental Ability Tests

ability testing

The second ability test category includes tests assessing whether an individual has the necessary mental prowess and experience to perform their duties. It is easy to understand why most people mistake ability tests (or aptitude tests) with cognitive assessments. The difference is that cognitive tests represent a large proportion of ability tests but do not cover all.

To make things simpler, aptitude tests focus on a much narrower range of skills than IQ tests or cognitive tests do. Some aptitude tests might have such a constricted focus that they generate limitations on what they can predict.

A Quick Classification of Mental Ability Tests

For this reason, in specialty literature, you will find ability tests under the name of “special ability assessment.” Psychologists design them to evaluate an individual’s capability in a particular area.

As mental abilities tests go, specialists classify them in two types:

  1. Speed Ability Tests: Recruiters design the test using straightforward questions. Then, they measure how many correct answers candidates can provide in a given amount of time. They are useful when you recruit candidates for administrative and clerical jobs.
  2. Power Aptitude Tests: You present candidates with a small number of complex questions. You measure how well individuals solve the given problems in the allotted time. Recruiters use such tests to hire candidates for higher professional levels and positions.

Ability Tests’ Common Traits

No matter what ability test you choose to use in the hiring process, you have to know they all share some traits:

  • Most mental ability tests are online or at least in computerized form;
  • Usually, they are strictly-timed and take the form of multiple-choice exams;
  • The candidate can perform the test on a computer in the recruitment office, at the company’s headquarters, or even at home;
  • They all come with standardized scoring systems that help recruiters compare candidates against each other;
  • Computerized/online ability tests’ critical advantage is that they offer recruiters immediate access to the candidate’s results, thus being cost-effective.

The reason recruiters use cognitive tests and special ability tests in the recruitment process is that they are excellent predictors of job performance.

It would be best if you did not mistake ability testing with hard skills assessment either. The latter usually contains non-standardized evaluations that simulate work tasks. But, for clarification, let’s see some of the most popular aptitude tests recruiters use for specific job descriptions.

1. Clerical Aptitudes/Concentration Ability Tests

Usually scored on both speed and precision, clerical ability tests measure an individual’s capacity to concentrate on one or multiple tasks and deliver accurate results.

Recruiters use an attention-to-detail test when they hire for clerical and administrative level jobs. In such positions, mistakes can lead to severe consequences: finance, healthcare, project management, legal, data entry, etc.

2. Verbal Reasoning Tests

Such verbal reasoning assessment tools measure a candidate’s ability to understand and follow written instructions; comprehend the meaning and uses of terms, and more. You may know such tools as “reading tests.” They usually go hand in hand with “writing tests” as hard skills assessment instruments.  

Often, verbal reasoning assessment focuses on:

  • Reading comprehension of texts;
  • Spelling;
  • Grammar;
  • Understanding of terms and their definitions.

The tests offer recruiters insights into individuals’ vocabulary levels, word context and logic handling, figurative language understanding, written and oral communication skills, and more.

3. Numerical Reasoning Tests

Understanding numbers and number concepts, mathematical equations and calculations, tables, graphs, complex data interpretation, algorithms, numerical patterns, etc., are critical aptitudes. You use them when you hire for administrative and clerical jobs, accounting, expert finance, the IT industry, etc.

Recruiters use such numerical reasoning tests to determine candidate’s numeracy skills on different levels. Employees should have a basic numerical reasoning aptitude even if it is not the central part of their jobs. The difficulty of the numerical reasoning tests progresses according to the task complexity and position level.

4. Spatial Reasoning Tests

Spatial ability tests are standard practice when recruiting for engineering, design, architecture, surveying, production, technical positions, etc. The tools measure individuals’ ability to mentally visualize, operate, and manipulate 2D or 3D shapes and patterns.

5. Diagrammatic/Abstract Reasoning Tests

These tests measure individuals’ abilities to operate with abstract ideas. They identify a pattern’s underlying logic to find conclusions and solutions based on that logic. Abstract reasoning tests usually use diagrams. Psychologists consider that good abstract reasoning scores are excellent predictors of fluid intelligence and high abilities of quick learning. For this reason, conceptual reasoning test questions/problems are common to many pre-employment assessment tools, even interviews.

6. Mechanical Reasoning Tests

Recruiters, private companies, and governmental branches use these tests when they hire for technical and engineering jobs, craft, IT, etc. Whenever employees need to work with circuits, levers, pulleys, engines, etc., a mechanical reasoning test helps you perform a finer pre-selection of candidates.

Interestingly enough, the mechanical ability test has found uses in the military (the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). It includes mechanical reasoning assessments), police force, fire service, and more.

Ability Tests’ Validity and Uses

In current practice, ability tests also include:

  • Data checking tests (checking tables of data and information against each other); they pair well with math skills tests and other hard skills testing revolving around numerical reasoning;
  • Fault diagnosis tests (measure individuals’ ability to approach a problem logically and find the faults’ causes); recruiters use them together with mechanical reasoning assessment tools;
  • In-tray exercises (samples of the actual work an employee will have to perform at the job); usually, they challenge the candidate to interact with fake email programs and offer answers to the incoming messages via multiple-choice questionnaires.

As we said above, mental ability tests and cognitive tests come as standardized instruments, proving inherent validity. For obvious reasons, recruiters use them together to assess a candidate’s potential for job performance. While sometimes they blend, these tests are your surefire way to sift through candidates and handpick those you consider valuable.

Bottom Line

When it comes to physical ability tests, we already discussed their significant liability levels. However, we will emphasize the fact that both mental ability tests and cognitive tests have their limitations. For this reason, you should evaluate candidates with a test battery that includes multiple assessment tool types.

Once you selected the candidates based on their aptitudes, innate abilities, hard and soft skills, you can move forward with your hiring strategy. In other words, you can call the selected candidates for structured interviews, behavioral interviews, situational evaluations, and more.

For instance, if you want to hire a customer service representative, you can include in your assessment one or more of the following tools:

  • Verbal reasoning tests with writing and reading hard skills assessments;
  • In-tray exercises;
  • Numerical reasoning tests;
  • Clerical aptitudes tests;
  • Computer literacy;
  • Problem-solving;
  • Specific behavioral/situational interviews.

What ability test or tools do you use in your recruitment process? Do you find them helpful? What pre-employment evaluation instruments do you recommend? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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