Occupational psychology conference: Aptitude testing by employers 'deeply flawed'

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ABILITY tests used throughout the education system and by the country's biggest employers are fundamentally flawed, according to the latest research.

The questionnaires are meant to rate innate aptitude, but candidates who were 'coached' for them were found to perform considerably better, researchers will tell the British Psychological Society's annual occupational psychology conference in Brighton today.

This finding calls into question the validity of the tests which are marketed by companies involved in a multi-million pound business and which are meant to cancel out the effects of coaching.

Psychologists from Hull University and consultants Saville and Holdsworth argued that such selection tests are much fairer when examiners ensure that all entrants have had a chance to practise beforehand. Lack of familiarity puts candidates at a disadvantage.

As a result of the study of 163 students in their penultimate year of secondary education, the researchers point out that practice sessions can also improve the performance of disadvantaged members of ethnic minorities. British Rail last year changed its promotion selection system after its testing procedures were seen to discriminate against black and Asian people.

Over the last 20 years employers and academics have assumed that the tests were objective and fair and employees and college entrants have been selected on that basis.

The authors of the paper Practice and Performance - The Effects of Systematic Test Preparation recommend a two-stage approach to preparing for questionnaires in order to make the tests fairer. Practice leaflets should be sent to candidates followed by trial sessions, they argue.

The authors conclude: 'Familiarity with the format of a test as a well as experience of working to a tight time limit can influence test performance. Although practice does not make perfect, systematic preparation of candidates can significantly increase test scores.'

Graduates rate quality of work and career path three times more important than pay, experts have found.

In the most detailed survey to date of recent graduates, researchers discovered that a 'honeymoon' period in the first year of employment was followed almost immediately by a time when they were far more critical of their organisations.

John Arnold and Kate Mackenzie Davey of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, conducted their research among 570 graduates in the first three years of their employment at eight major companies, all of whom were experienced graduate recruiters.

Speaking at the conference in Brighton yesterday, Dr Arnold said employers could learn how to enhance graduates' loyalty from the findings: 'If companies are concerned about their graduates' commitment and want them to stay, they have to think very hard about how to work these people and develop them.

'Giving them a big salary and a high profile is less important than doing things they feel are developing them. The big thing is career clarity - very difficult to get right, very important.'

The respondents were employed in a wide variety of private sector organisations from a food company to two financial services firms. The lowest salary for a first- year graduate was pounds 9,000, while the highest pay for a third-year employee was in excess of pounds 20,000. While those on the lowest salaries were least satisfied with their earnings, they were not necessarily the most disaffected.

While rating career and quality of work first, the respondents then mentioned relationships with colleagues (other than their boss) and formal training as next most important.

Next was pay and feedback about their performance from superiors and support from the organisation. Also low down the list was how successful their employing organisation was perceived to be in its field.