An Introduction to Assessment

Since the early 1920s, psychological and educational tests have come into widespread use as tools for professionals such as psychologists, counselors, teachers, and human resource managers in government, education, and industry. In North America today, there is scarcely a person over the age of ten who has not taken at least one test, whether it has been an achievement test, an IQ test, a personality test, or a measure of interest or aptitude in a particular field.

A principal reason for this growth in test use is that the results of professionally developed tests are more reliable and accurate assessments of human capabilities and behavior than those based on the observations of individuals alone, however well-informed or insightful those observations might be. Individual judgments about people tend to be subjective and vulnerable to error, no matter how hard one tries to be fair. Even skilled observers who pride themselves on their objectivity are apt to perceive people through a filter of unconsciously held biases, personal beliefs, incomplete knowledge, and temporary distractions.

By relying on personal observations alone, a teacher may view a slow learner in the classroom as being lazy; a psychologist may interpret eccentric behavior as indicative of a serious emotional disorder; or a human resources director may view a carelessly dressed person as incapable of handling a high-responsibility job and all three observers may be wrong with potentially serious consequences. Tests can help to reduce these types of misjudgments about individuals.

This does not mean that tests can serve as a replacement for the personal judgment of professionals. In fact, a test is usually only one source of information among several used to assist in making the most accurate and fair decisions possible. Professionally developed tests that are designed by experts, scored and interpreted by properly trained individuals, can help even the most experienced and knowledgeable decision-maker to construct a fairer and more accurate picture of an individual. With more accurate information, teachers can better encourage students who have different learning styles to learn more effectively, psychologists can better serve their clients by providing proper treatment based on more accurate diagnoses, and employers can increase the likelihood that they will hire the right person for any given position.

Today, there are literally hundreds of tests available to professionals. These may be used to measure a wide range of human characteristics and behavior. Some, such as mental abilities tests or personality inventories, may be quite comprehensive in scope. Others may be more narrowly focused aids used to diagnose problems such as alcohol abuse or to assess a job applicants mechanical ability.

Tests may have more than one use. For example, a neuropsychologist might use a cognitive test to track a patients rate of recovery from the effects of a stroke. A school psychologist could use the same test to assess a student for the possible presence of a learning disability. And a consulting psychologist could use the same test to assess a job applicants abstract reasoning ability when that skill is vital to effective job performance.

Despite the important and useful role that tests play in businesses, schools, clinics and hospitals, many people have questions about their origins and use. This is not surprising, since tests are not often widely understood by the public. Test questions are typically not supplied ahead of time, and their results are generally kept private. Tests can be highly sophisticated and complex instruments and are often based on many years of rigorous research.

Following are some commonly asked questions about tests that are outlined under the different environments in which testing is most commonly found: