Is there a case for psychometric testing in FE?

Aptitude assessments can help colleges to understand a student’s strengths and attributes, along with any additional support that they may need. But before introducing such tests, care must be taken to establish their integrity and any results should be viewed with caution, finds Carly Page
1st January 2021, 12:05am
Is There A Case For Psychometric Testing In Fe?
Carly Page


Is there a case for psychometric testing in FE?

Laura stares at her test results. For once, she doesn't feel anxious about the marks she has got. That's because the test she just sat wasn't to determine whether she is "good" or "bad" at something, or even how much she has learned. Instead, the test is designed to tell her more about her personality traits, and how these might align with future career options.

Psychometric tests, often referred to as aptitude tests, are designed to give an objective measure of a person's skills and attributes. There is a huge variety of such tests available, but they tend to fall into two broad categories: tests of ability (including verbal, numerical and spatial reasoning) and personality or trait-based tests.

Psychometric testing is commonly used by employers and by higher education institutions to help determine candidates' suitability for jobs or courses. Yet such testing is now also being used by some schools and colleges to find out more about students' abilities and what makes them tick. 

Those starting college may have been through some form of aptitude testing in their education already - such as a cognitive abilities test.

But what can these tests really tell us at post-16 level? And how can colleges that want to use them make sure that they are doing so effectively? According to Igor Menezes, a psychometrician and lecturer of organisational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Hull, psychometric testing can provide colleges with useful information about students.

"Psychometric testing can be used to measure a wide range of psychological traits, including but not limited to knowledge, skills, personality and attitudes," he says. 

"When applied to educational settings, it can provide information not only on how students work and perform individually but it can help teachers implement collaborative assessments and foster collaborative learning methods that make students more accountable to their group."

Rigorous process

The types of tests that are commonly used by employers are designed by psychologists around well-established psychological traits. They undergo rigorous trials to make sure they are consistent and that they measure what they've been designed to measure.

"Psychometric testing is a well-established field that uses well-tested, well-documented theories alongside advanced techniques from psychology, statistics and computer sciences, among other areas. The combination of a theory-driven and data-driven approach makes psychometric testing one of the most reliable fields of psychology," says Menezes.

Crispin Chatterton, director of education at GL Assessment (a leading provider of formative assessments to UK schools and colleges, including the CAT4 cognitive abilities test) suggests that ability testing can provide a useful baseline to offer colleges a starting point for working with a new cohort.

He says that although the "most popular time to use abilities tests tends to be in key stage 3, tests such as CAT4 can be used at any time from 7 to 17+ years". 

"It's often used as a baseline assessment as students move to different phases - from primary to secondary school, first school to middle school and so on. It follows that some sixth-form or further education colleges do use CAT4 for that reason; CAT4 remains valid at this age range and it does include A-level indicators as well," he says. 

However, his organisation has found that literacy baseline tests tend to be more popular than general cognitive ability tests at FE level. "Given the wide range of courses available to students at this age, it is useful for FE colleges to understand the levels of additional support that might be needed should a student struggle with their literacy skills," he says. 

"It's also worth mentioning that if a student has already taken an abilities test close to the age of 15, their results would not be expected to change significantly from ages 16-19 and, as such, the same CAT4 results could still be used as a reference point."

Psychometric testing can provide an initial measure of ability in specific areas that can be used to inform teaching, then. But it can also help colleges to support young people as they make decisions about future work or study.

Katea Gidley, co-founder and managing director of Career Ahead, an organisation that uses psychometric testing to provide careers guidance to students and adults, says that the instruments most suitable for the 16- to 19-year-old age bracket typically assess personality and interest or ability. 

There are two main areas in which she believes that this type of testing can be beneficial for college students: when providing them with guidance around "subject selection and tertiary study course choice" or to make sure that ability aligns with interest when discussing future plans.

"Many college and school students have little idea of their post-study career aspirations. Often these are limited to
what they know, largely shaped by parental occupations or influence," she says. 

Psychometric testing can help here, she suggests, as it can give a clearer picture of students' overall abilities than is shown by assessment in individual subjects.

"While academic results are a good proxy for general ability testing, it is useful for teachers and students to understand where their abilities and interests align, as opposed to merely aspiration," says Gidley. "Again, this information is useful to drive informed choice, and it also provides students with awareness of ability gaps and the opportunity to address these ability gaps while still in the schooling environment."

Addressing the 'gaps'

What might this process of addressing gaps look like? The way in which colleges put the results of any test to use in addressing these "gaps" would depend on how the test is being used, says Xiaofei Qi, assistant professor in the school of education at Durham University - specifically, on whether the test is treated as formative or summative assessment. 

"For the formative assessment purpose, a test with good psychometric properties would help teachers in identifying students' strengths and difficulties in specific learning areas, which could then inform both teachers' teaching and students' learning strategies in achieving better education together," she says.

"However, [if the test is being used for summative assessment purposes], schools and teachers would benefit most from reflecting on and reviewing the pedagogy and curriculum aspects that are relevant
to the students' performance and then using the information to inform educational practice in the next stage and/or with the next cohort of students." 

How would this work in practice? Carmel College in Merseyside provides one example. There, students are already sitting psychometric tests designed to help teachers formulate a picture of who they are as people. The information the tests provide is used by lecturers to help tailor lessons to meet students' needs and empower the students to take ownership of their own progress. 

"We've been doing this for the past three or four years, and it dovetails nicely with the new Ofsted framework in terms of behaviours and attitudes," says Karl Smith, vice-principal at Carmel College.

The test the college uses scores students in five personal indicators, including effort and "vision" (the degree to which a student knows what they want to achieve). These scores then provide a starting point for the college to understand more about that student and their abilities. "[It] allows us to look at where a student is strong, at their vision for their future and at their weaknesses," says Smith. 

But how exactly do teachers make use of that data? At Carmel, the tests are first conducted early in the year, within the first two to three weeks of term, before any academic assessment has taken place. This gives students an idea of where their focus needs to be for the year ahead and allows staff to intervene early if there are any issues. 

Smith says that staff make time at certain points throughout the year to focus on each of the five indicators with their classes and to look at what behaviours the students who achieve at the top end of that indicator have. 

"For example, with students that might not have got on to the course they wanted to, we find they don't score so highly on the 'vision' indicator," Smith explains. "With those students, we tailor our first sessions to focus on this point; this allows the student to be well informed about what's possible with their course and clarifies that what they're doing isn't second best.

"At the higher end, the vision and effort scores are high but they're often not so clear on the effort required to go to Oxford and Cambridge, for example. This is a bit of a wake-up call for those that have done well at GCSEs and shows them that A level requires a new level of effort."

According to Smith, this approach has been working because the very act of taking the test helps to make students more aware of their own attributes and how these contribute to their success. 

"Ultimately, what we're encouraging is self-intervention, and we want students to be active participants in their own improvement. Even if these tests did nothing, it would
still be a win, as the students' awareness of themselves is raised. It also makes them more open to changing their routines and forging new habits, and we think it works very well," he says. 

But while Carmel's experience with psychometric testing has been positive, it is important for colleges to be aware of the limitations of these tests, too. According to Menezes, a psychometric test will only ever provide a snapshot of who a student is.

"Psychometric testing provides an overarching perspective for investigating individual characteristics using a quantitative approach," he says. "However, colleges must be mindful that if they want to have
a more complete panorama of the student's skills, they should consider performing not only psychometric testing but a psychological assessment, which is the combination of psychometric tests with other qualitative and quantitative methods that might include interviews, teacher observation during group work and group marking, to name a few.

Context matters too, he adds, so a test developed for use in the US, for instance, wouldn't be "automatically valid" to use with students from the UK, simply because they speak English.

"Psychometric tests are context-specific, so when they are used in countries other than the one where the test was initially validated, they should be adapted and revalidated to ensure that their psychometric properties remain the same," he says.

Another factor that affects the test's effectiveness is correct administration, points out Qi, as without proper training and guidance from an expert, the results from psychometric testing can be misleading.

"Poor testing can do more harm than good," she warns. "Not only because it is consuming of time and resources but because it can also lead to wrong or biased decision making."

Doing the research

Before introducing a test, colleges need to check several points. 

First, they must check that the test they are considering is "fit for purpose" and not just "the 'hot' topic in town". 

"Second, introducing any psychometric testing should be an evidence-informed decision-making process that involves gathering external evidence (for example, research and practical evidence from other organisations) and internal evidence (such as a small sample pilot trial), before scaling it up to be college-wide," Qi explains.

Gidley, likewise, says that introducing psychometric testing must be a "well-considered initiative" that takes a series of factors into account, including "the validity and integrity of the selected test". It is also important for colleges to interpret the outcomes of the test cautiously, Qi adds, and to be aware that the results will be generalisations. 

There is an easy way for colleges to achieve all of this, though: to seek support from, or collaboration with, experts in the field.

"This will ensure that the decision-making process is evidence-informed, the selection of psychometric testing is properly justified, the testing implementation process is sufficiently evaluated", and that the application of testing results "is well supported with strong and concrete evidence", says Qi.  

Ultimately, psychometric testing has the potential to be a useful tool but only if colleges seek the right support and don't see the tests as a silver bullet that will tell them everything they need to know about their students. That last part shouldn't be a problem, though, because those who are working in colleges will already recognise that their learners are so much more than the outcomes of a single test. 

Carly Page is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "Is there a case for psychometric testing in FE?"

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