What every buyer should know about forms of assessment

In this post, I'll be describing and comparing three basic forms of assessment—surveys, tests of factual and procedural knowledge, and performative tests.

Surveys—measures of perception, preference, or opinion

checklistWhat is a survey? A survey (a.k.a. inventory) is any assessment that asks the test-taker to choose from a set of options, such as "strongly agree" or "strongly disagree", based on opinion, preference, or perception. Surveys can be used by organizations in several ways. For example, opinion surveys can help maintain employee satisfaction by providing a "safe" way to express dissatisfaction before workplace problems have a chance to escalate.

Surveys have been used by organizations in a variety of ways. Just about everyone who's worked for a large organization has completed a personality inventory as part of a team-building exercise. The results stimulate lots of water cooler discussions about which "type" or "color" employees are, but their impact on employee performance is unclear. (Fair warning: I'm notorious for my discomfort with typologies!) Some personality inventories are even used in high stakes hiring and promotion decisions, a practice that continues despite evidence that they are very poor predictors of employee success [1].

survey_itemAlthough most survey developers don't pretend their assessments measure competence, many do. The item on the left was used in a survey with the words "management skills" in it's title.

Claims that surveys measure competence are most common when "malleable traits"—traits that are subject to change, learning or growth—are targeted. One example of a malleable trait is "EQ" or "emotional intelligence". EQ is viewed as a skill that can be developed, and there are several surveys that purport to measure its development. What they actually measure is attitude.

Another example of surveys masquerading as assessments of skill is in the measurement of "transformational learning". Transformational learning is defined as a learning experience that fundamentally changes the way a person understands something, yet the only way it appears to be measured is with surveys. Transformational learning surveys measure people's perceptions of their learning experience, not how much they are actually changed by it.

The only survey-type assessments that can be said to measure something like skill are assessments—such as 360s—that ask people about their perceptions. Although 360s inadvertently measure other things, like how much a person is liked or whether or not a respondent agrees with that person, they may also document evidence of behavior change. If what you are interested in is behavior change, a 360 may be appropriate in some cases, but it's important to keep in mind that while a 360 may measure change in a target's behavior, it's also likely to measure change in a respondent's attitude that's unrelated to the target's behavior.

360-type assessments may, to some extent, serve as tests of competence, because behavior change may be an indication that someone has learned new skills. When an assessment measures something that might be an indicator of something else, it is said to measure a proxy. A good 360 may measure a proxy (perceptions of behavior) for a skill (competence).

There are literally hundreds of research articles that document the limitations of surveys, but I'll mention only one more of them here: All of the survey types I've discussed are vulnerable to "gaming"—smart people can easily figure out what the most desirable answers are.

Surveys are extremely popular today because, relative to assessments of skill, they are inexpensive to develop and cost almost nothing to administer. Lectica gives away several high quality surveys for free because they are so inexpensive, yet organizations spend millions of dollars every year on surveys, many of which are falsely marketed as assessments of skill or competence.

Tests of factual and procedural knowledge

A test of competence is any test that asks the test taker to demonstrate a skill. Tests of factual and procedural knowledge can legitimately be thought of as tests of competence.

mc_itemThe classic multiple choice test examines factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, and basic comprehension. If you want to know if someone knows the rules, which formulas to apply, the steps in a process, or the vocabulary of a field, a multiple choice test may meet your needs. Often, the developers of multiple choice tests claim that their assessments measure understanding, reasoning, or critical thinking. This is because some multiple choice tests measure skills that are assumed to be proxies for skills like understanding, reasoning, and critical thinking. They are not direct tests of these skills.

Multiple choice tests are widely used, because there is a large industry devoted to making them, but they are increasingly unpopular because of their (mis)use as high stakes assessments. They are often perceived as threatening and unfair because they are often used to rank or select people, and are not helpful to the individual learner. Moreover, their relevance is often brought into question because they don't directly measure what we really care about—the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-life contexts.

Performative tests

performative_itemTests that ask people to directly demonstrate their skills in (1) the real world, (2) real-world simulations, or (3) as they are applied to real-world scenarios are called performative tests. These tests usually do not have "right" answers. Instead, they employ objective criteria to evaluate performances for the level of skill demonstrated, and often play a formative role by providing feedback designed to improve performance or understanding. This is the kind of assessment you want if what you care about is deep understanding, reasoning skills, or performance in real-world contexts.

Performative tests are the most difficult tests to make, but they are the gold standard if what you want to know is the level of competence a person is likely to demonstrate in real-world conditions—and if you're interested in supporting development. Standardized performative tests are not yet widely used, because the methods and technology required to develop them are relatively new, and there is not yet a large industry devoted to making them. But they are increasingly popular because they support learning.

Unfortunately, performative tests may initially be perceived as threatening because people's attitudes toward tests of knowledge and skill have been shaped by their exposure to high stakes multiple choice tests. The idea of testing for learning is taking hold, but changing the way people think about something as ubiquitous as testing is an ongoing challenge.

Lectical Assessments

Lectical Assessments are performative tests—tests for learning. They are designed to support robust learning—the kind of learning that optimizes the growth of essential real-world skills. We're the leader of the pack when it comes to the sophistication of our methods and technology, our evidence base, and the sheer number of assessments we've developed.

[1] Frederick P. Morgeson, et al. (2007) Are we getting fooled again? Coming to terms with limitations in the use of personality tests for personnel selection, Personnel Psychology, 60, 1029-1033.

The limitations of testing

It is important for those of us who use assessments to ensure that they (1) measure what we say they measure, (2) measure it reliably enough to justify claimed distinctions between and within persons, and (3) are used responsibly. It is relatively easy for testing experts to create assessments that are adequately reliable (2) for individual assessment, and although it is more difficult to show that these tests measure the construct of interest (1), there are reasonable methods for showing that an assessment meets this standard. However, it is more difficult to ensure that assessments are used responsibly (3).

Few consumers of tests are aware of their inherent limitations. Even the best tests, those that are highly reliable and measure what they are supposed to measure, provide only a limited amount of information. This is true of all measures. The more we hone in on a measureable dimension—in other words, the greater our precision becomes—the narrower the construct becomes. Time, weight, height, and distance are all extremely narrow constructs. This means that they provide a very specific piece of information extremely well. When we use a ruler, we can have great confidence in the measurement we make, down to very small lengths (depending on the ruler, of course). No one doubts the great advantages of this kind of precision. But we can’t learn anything else about the measured object. Its length usually cannot tell us what the object is, how it is shaped, its color, its use, its weight, how it feels, how attractive it is, or how useful it is. We only know how long it is. To provide an accurate account of the thing that was measured, we need to know many more things about it, and we need to construct a narrative that brings these things together in a meaningful way.

A really good psychological measure is similar. The LAS (Lectical Assessment System), for example, is designed to go to the heart of development, stripping away everything that does not contribute to the pure developmental “height” of a given performance. Without knowledge of many other things—such as the ways of thinking that are generally associated with this “height” in a particular domain, the specific ideas that are associated with this particular performance, information from other performances on other measures, qualitative observations, and good clinical judgment—we cannot construct a terribly useful narrative.

And this brings me to my final point: A formal measure, no matter how great it is, should always be employed by a knowledgeable mentor, clinician, teacher, consultant, or coach as a single item of information about a given client that may or may not provide useful insights into relevant needs or capabilities. Consider this relatively simple example: a given 2-year-old may be tall for his age, but if he is somewhat under weight for his age, the latter measure may seem more important. However, if he has a broken arm, neither measure may loom large—at least until the bone is set. Once the arm is safely in a cast, all three pieces of information—weight, height, and broken arm—may contribute to a clinical diagnosis that would have been difficult to make without any one of them.

It is my hope that the educational community will choose to adopt high standards for measurement, then put measurement in its place—alongside good clinical judgment, reflective life experience, qualitative observations, and honest feedback from trusted others.

Predicting trends, testing people

Mark Forman, in his response to the post entitled, IQ and development, wrote about the difference between predicting trends and testing individuals. I agree that people, including many academics, do not understand the difference between using assessments to predict trends and using assessments to make judgments about individuals. There are two main issues: First, as Mark argues, questions of validity differ, depending upon whether we are looking at individuals or population trends. If we are looking at trends, determining predictive validity is a simple matter of determining if an assessment helps an institution make more successful decisions than it was able to make without the assessment. However, if a test is intended to be useful to individuals (aid in their learning, help them determine what to learn next, help them find the best place to learn, help them decide what profession to pursue, etc.), predictive validity cannot be determined by examining trends. In this case, the predictive validity of an assessment should be evaluated in terms of how well it predicts what individual test-takers can most benefit from learning next, where they can learn it, or what kind of employment they should seek—as individuals.

The second issue concerns reliability. Especially in the adult assessment field, researchers often do not understand that the levels of statistical reliability considered acceptable for studies of population trends are far from adequate for making judgments about individuals. Many of the adult assessments that are on the market today have been developed by researchers who do not understand the reliability criteria for assessments used to test individuals*. As a consequence, the reliability of these assessments is often so low that we cannot be confident that a score on a given assessment is truly different from any other score on that assessment.

*Unfortunately, there is no magic reliability number. But here are some general guidelines. The absolute minimum statistical reliability for an assessment that claims to distinguish two or three levels of performance is an alpha of .85. To claim up to 6 levels, you need an alpha of .95. You will also want to think about the meaning of these distinctions between levels in terms of confidence intervals. A confidence interval is the range in which an individual’s true score is most likely to fall.  For example, in the case of Lectical™ assessments, the statistical reliabilities we have calculated over the last 10 years indicate that the confidence interval around Lectical scores is generally around 1/4 of a level (a phase).

Advice: If statistical reliability is not reported (preferably in a peer reviewed article), don’t use the test.