How fair are ability tests for different ethnic groups?

Nov 23, 2022 | Sector & policy

Ability tests are a popular way to whittle down graduates at an early stage in the recruitment process, but are they fair for different ethnic groups? Ben Williams, Founder of Sten10, a consultancy that specialises in designing assessments for recruitment, offers insight and advice.

Psychometric tests are fair, objective ways to assess people and do much to level the playing field versus methods such as CV screening or informal interviews which are more susceptible to bias. However, differences in performance during recruitment are observed, most commonly in verbal reasoning tests, where Asian ethnic groups on average outperform White groups who in turn on average outperform Black groups.

Of course, these differences are averages and there will be individuals from all ethnic backgrounds who perform at all levels in these assessment tests. However, left unaddressed these average differences can perpetuate inequality in recruitment practices so it is important to understand why they arise and what can be done about them.

Here are some of the key reasons for ethnic group differences in ability tests and what steps you can take to counter them as part of your recruitment processes.


1. Poor test design

Some tests are inherently biased due to the way in which the questions are phrased or the way in which the test has been designed without diversity in mind.

This cultural bias disproportionately affects those from non-White ethnic groups and can result in, for example, idiomatic language being used in test questions or unrepresentative norm groups.

Resolution: ask the test publisher about how ethnic diversity was considered in the build of the test. Ask questions such as, who took part in the design, the piloting and in the norm groups? What adverse impact studies have been conducted and what did they show? How did this affect subsequent design decisions for the test?


2. Test taker mindset

Self-doubt and a lack of optimism about the outcome of a test have been shown to impair test performance. If people from certain ethnic groups are primed to believe they will perform poorly on a test, these interfering thoughts will result in lower scores.

Resolution: Boost an optimistic mindset in test-takers (via the test invitation and administration) and integrate diverse representation in attraction and recruitment materials. DON’T ask demographic information before the test starts in case it primes stereotype threat, ask it at the end.


3. Poor test choice/use

If you use a verbal reasoning test, consider what you really need to assess.

Resolution: If it is reasoning skills, then an abstract reasoning test or game-based assessment could tap into the same core skill but show far less ethnic group differences. If you are really trying to assess English language skills then instead look for qualifications. If verbal reasoning is genuinely a key part of the role, ensure the test is at the right level for the role requirements. Graduate-level reasoning skills will not be required for all roles and therefore the test should be chosen accordingly. In any event, do not set your cut-offs unreasonably high. Tests are never perfect predictors of performance, so sifting out anyone who performs below the 90th percentile is unreasonable and is likely to exacerbate adverse impact.


4. Lack of test familiarity

In many cases, not having the chance to practice tests, or receive any coaching from people who have been through them before, results in people being less likely to perform well.

A higher proportion of people from ethnic minority groups come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which is often accompanied with less access to this kind of test exposure and coaching.

Resolution:  Provide practice tests or host webinars on how to give your best performance. It’s important to demystify the testing process and provide advice and guidance.

Taken together, these steps will help to make your use of ability tests fairer. Remember, well-designed ability tests are still valid and objective measures of performance. If used to assess relevant criteria they will not be subject to the same kinds of bias that are present in other selection exercises, such as the ever-popular interview. Using them wisely is the key.

Read more insight and advice about fair assessment and selection in recruitment

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