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Don’t Blame the Test

by Dr. Linda Henman

As the Baby Boomers face retirement, the federal government faces the problem of replacing them. Government officials must address the consequences of a bad hire, just as corporate companies do, with one important exception. Firing a civil servant is nearly impossible.

That’s why decision makers are once again considering the use of tests, something that they abandoned thirty-four years ago, not because the civil service exam didn’t work but because it drew criticism.

President Nixon threw out the test in 1972 after a lawsuit claimed it was biased against black and Latino applicants who did not generally score well on it. A new test emerged, but those groups continued to score poorly. In 1981 President Carter abolished it.

In the ensuing years, government hiring professionals have relied on resumes, self-assessments, and luck. Four years ago the administration of President Obama eliminated the essay portion, stating that essays took too long to read, were vulnerable to ghostwriting, and inadequate in measuring job skills. In other words, this change sped up the process of making bad hiring decisions.

Patrick Sharpe, manager of the Office of Performance Management’s testing services division said recently, “There is a lot of fear out there over what is okay to use and what is not.” Mr. Sharpe should be afraid, but not for the reasons he thinks.

First, the reasons for eliminating the tests thirty-four years ago will resurface because Nixon, Carter, and Obama never really established the cause of the problems. It’s not any imagined bias in the tests. It’s a mindset that tells us that we should accept the fact that a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos can’t perform on standardized tests because they attended underperforming schools in blighted areas. Instead of improving the conditions of these groups, those in positions of influence decided to figure out a way to hire unqualified people.

USA Hire is a new generation of exams that uses animated avatars and videos to simulate challenges, hoping to test for reasoning and problem-solving skills. Instead of using the time-honored, highly validated instruments that we use in corporate America, the federal government wants to gamble that it can reinvent the wheel.

Walt Keays, a program manager at the Interior Department, said tests could be useful only if they “reflect the specific position being considered.” He worries that some people don’t take tests well, “a situation that may preclude an exceptional candidate from being considered.” What nonsense, but in fairness, Keays is a distinguished naval aviator and engineer, not an assessment psychologist.

Assessment psychologists can use the same battery of validated tests for any position in any organization, from the receptionist to the CEO. The person doing the analysis, however, must know how to interpret the data. That requires both art and science, and both seem absent from the hiring practice of the federal government and most companies.

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