Evaluating Tests of General Cognitive Ability at the Workplace

Evaluating Tests of General Cognitive Ability at the Workplace


The success of any organization depends on the effective performance of its employees. For this reason, manager, supervisor, and other organizational leaders have a vested interest in the human capital that comprises their organization. One way in which talented individuals can be identified is through the evaluation of their general cognitive ability. Cognitive ability tests typically employ the use of questions or problems to evaluate the ability of an individual to learn quickly, reading comprehension, reasoning, logic and other enduring mental abilities that are fundamental to success in various job descriptions. Cognitive ability tests measure a person’s aptitude or potential to solve job-related challenges by providing information about their mental abilities such as mathematical reasoning, verbal reasoning as well as perceptual abilities such as speed in recognizing letters of the alphabet. Various instruments have been constructed to assist organizations in the assessment of candidates for employment and or promotion in the workplace, despite, these tests having broad advantages; they also suffer from some shortcomings which may range from invalidity, bias and inapplicability in certain job assessments.


People possess an array of characteristics and capabilities which are often referred to as individual differences. These individual differences include competencies such as cognitive skills, physical abilities, and interpersonal aptitudes. Such individual differences have a direct impact on a person’s job performance in work organizations. Traditional views of cognitive ability consider a variety of intellectual domains, with the most common including capacities in verbal comprehension, spatial skills, memory, and processing speed. In a recent iteration captured in The Handbook of Human Abilities, Fleishman and Reilly (1992) pinpointed five distinct domains of human ability: cognitive, psychomotor, physical, sensory-perceptual, and interpersonal. These domains each further comprised of distinct abilities that relate to various aspects of job performance.According to Harder, Rash, and Wagner (2014, p. 257)Cognitive ability refers to an individual’s basic capabilities in a variety of important areas.  McDaniel and Banks (2010, p. 62) defined general cognitive ability as the ability that consistently differentiates individuals on mental abilities regardless of the cognitive task or test.

This paper presents the concept of cognitive ability as it applies in the workplace. It highlights the advantages and disadvantages that tests of cognitive ability bring to the workplace as well as the contexts within which such tests may be appropriate and inappropriate. The paper finally concludes by presenting and briefly describing three common instruments of general cognitive ability  that are normally used in the assessment of potential job candidates and identification of prospective candidates for promotion.

Cognitive Ability and Job Performance

Cognitive ability is an area of individual difference that has been a primary focus of personnel selection. Typically, researchers have concentrated on the concept of generalized intelligence or general mental ability commonly referred to as “g”. This is the conceptualization of cognitive ability as one general factor, which is based on the findings that people’s performance on different tests of mental ability tends to correlate positively. According to Sims(2007, p. 178),cognitive ability is the best available predictor of job performance.Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the linkage between job performance and tests of cognitive abilities. Contemporary rundowns of these research studies showed that basic cognitive abilities are directlyrelated to job performance. The studies have showed that cognitive skills and abilities are more important on productivity. What’s more, cognitive abilities are more valuable for successful job performance than other measures of job performance. Hunter and Hunter(1984) for example, summarized various studies which revealed that basic cognitive abilities and psychomotor skills were approximately three times more valuable than grade point average, or the amount of experience or class rank for predicting job success, and nearly four times more important than behavior in employment interviews or scores on measures of interest.

Cognitive Ability Tests at the Workplace

No one can perform successfully in a job without the necessary job knowledge and job skills. Although an organization can select applicants who have the needed knowledge and skills, many jobs require that new employees be trained after they are hired. The acquisition of skill and knowledge depends on learning, and the rate of learning is related to general cognitive ability(McDaniel & Banks, 2010, p. 66).At the workplace, cognitive ability tests typically make use of questions or problems to assess a candidate’s ability to learn quickly, logic, reasoning, reading comprehension and other enduring mental abilities that are key to success in various jobs. These tests examine an individual’s aptitude or potential to handle job-related challenges bymake available information with regards to their mental abilities.

Advantages Cognitive ability tests at the Workplace

The first advantage of cognitive ability tests relates to job productivity. Accordingto Harder, Rash, and Wagner(2014, p. 256)tests of cognitive ability have more predictive power than grades, education, or a job interview. This predictive power arises from their measure of general cognitive ability rather than specific skills. Therefore, the employment of these tests during recruitment results to the selection of the best candidate for a particular position.

Secondly, tests of cognitive ability have been established to produce valid inferences for a number of organizational outcomes such as performance and success in training; they have been demonstrated to predict job performance especially for more complex and complicated jobs(McDaniel & Banks, 2010, p. 66). That is, the validity rises with increasing complexity of the job.Thirdly, tests of cognitive ability have the added advantage that they can be administeredby way of paper and pen orcomputerized. This allows for large numbers of assessments. These tests also do not require skilled administrators to direct their use and can be administered in group settings where many candidates can be assessed at the same time.Lastly, Cognitive ability tests also have the advantage that they are cost effective to the administrators relative to personality tests and they reduce business costs by identifying candidates for hiring, promotion or training that possess the needed abilities and skills. Additionally, the outcomes of the test cannot be influenced by the test taker attempts to impression manage or fake responses.

Disadvantagesof Cognitive Ability Tests at the Workplace

According toJensen(1998) cognitive ability tests have the weakness that they typically are more likely to differ in outcomes or results by race and gender more than any other type of test. That is, non-minorities predictably score one standard deviation higher than minorities which results in adverse impact. Additionally, males and females differences in ability scores also negatively impact the scores of female applicants.Devlin(1997, p. 36), adds that cognitive tests are biased against blacks and other minorities, even though all groups have equal distribution of cognitive ability.

Tests of cognitive ability are generally perceived as not good methods for picking employees.The best tests are the ones that measure specific job skills that are needed for a particular job position. Additionally, these tests are considered to be more time-consuming especially in developing them if not purchased off-the-shelf.

CircumstancesWhen Using a Test of Cognitive Ability in the Workplace Would Be Appropriate and When Not Appropriate

Tests ofcognitive ability are appropriate at the workplace for as long as they present certain benefits to the organization using them. Employers use test of cognitive ability in the workplace for a multitude of reasons. These reasons can be summarized as:Firstly, to assessan individual’s job performance, Cognitive tests are considered the most powerful and valid predictors of job performance. According to Hunter and Hunter (1984), the predictive power on job performance of tests of cognitive ability ismore than 14 times than the average selection interview.Secondly, to mete organizational performance, the employment of cognitive ability tests in the workplace has been found to lead to increased organizational performance, reduced cost per hire, increased employee retention, higher levels of employee motivation, decreased employee turnover and decreased absenteeism. Selecting a top performing candidate and ensuring a high-quality workforce is imperative for any organization.

Thirdly, to promote objectivity during recruitment of new employees or identification of candidates for promotion or leadership positions. The use of tests of cognitive ability increases fairness and objectivity in the selection process of new employees or potential candidates for promotion. This results to employees being selected through merit, fair standardized test as opposed to subjective selection through unreliable means.

Tests for cognitive ability at the workplace may not be appropriate when they provide avenues where the results of such tests are discriminatory to candidates with particular demographic characteristics, or when they do not result to the fair and objective hiring or promotion of the right candidate. Additionally, it is worth noting that the use of tests of cognitive ability at the workplace, present avenues for legal charges against an organization. According toArnold(2006, p. 6) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects job candidates against any form of discrimination in employment. Title VII identifies two forms of discrimination: disparate treatment and disparate impact. Disparate impact liability is executed on organizationsin the occasion that a facially neutral employment procedure such as a test of cognitive ability has a considerable negative bearing on the basis of a candidate’s subgroup status such as race or gender. This becomes a source of concern since some tests of cognitive ability have been perceived to discriminate on the basis of gender and race of the candidate(Jensen, 1998).

The Potential Adverse Impacts That Might Affect the Results of Such Tests of Cognitive Ability 

The potential adverse impacts that might affect the results of tests of cognitive ability stream from the lack of validity and reliability of the tests.According to Schmidt and Hunter (1998) as stated by McDaniel and Banks(2010, p. 65),  it has been observed since the 1920’s that different applications of the same general cognitive ability test resulted to different validity results. This is to say that the magnitude of the relationship between the test and job performance varied.  This problem of validity of results obtained from the administration of the same test of cognitive ability brought a concern with regards to the reliability of these test and led some researchers to the speculation that there were some unknown characteristics of the environment or situations in which the test was administered that caused the general cognitive ability test to be predictive of job performance in one situation, but not predictive or less predictive in another, a speculation referred to as the situation specificity hypothesis. Additionally, Jensen(1998) stated that tests of cognitive ability were biased against particular demographic groups such as minority groups and the female gender.

However, research by Schmidt and Hunter that questioned the situational specificity hypothesis showed that there exist other factors that affect the validity of a test of cognitive ability, as opposed to the situation factor. They identified random sampling error as the primary reason that the validity of general cognitive ability test varied across applications. In addition, they found that measurement errors also made general cognitive ability tests appear less valid than they actually were. Also,differences across studies in the extent of measurement error, in addition to random sampling error caused predictive validity of general cognitive ability tests to vary across situations. It was identified that range restrictions also resulted to making the tests of general cognitive ability to appear to be less valid than they were and that differences across studies in the degree of range restriction caused the predictive validity of general cognitive ability tests to vary across situations.

Therefore, it can be said that the results of tests of general cognitive ability are normally valid and reliable and stable across different settings. However, the work of Schmidt and Hunter demonstrated that the results hold true for as long as the data is adjusted for random sampling error, range restriction, as well as differences across studies in measurement error.

Instruments of Assessmentof General Cognitive Ability

Measurements of cognitive abilities have long been used to predict a number of socially important outcomes, such as academic attainments, occupational and social status, job performance and income, to name a few. Cognitive Ability testing typically refers to standardized measures of intelligence, aptitude, or achievement. The selection devices most often used in cognitive ability testing are standardized test designed to measure developed abilities that are influenced, to no small degree, by environmental factors such as formal education. There are several tests for measuring cognitive ability at the workplace, these include: the Slosson Intelligence Test-Revised (Sit-R), The General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB), The Multidimensional Aptitude Test Battery-Ii (MAB-II), The Woodcock-Johnson III Standard, The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and The Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT). However, in this review, the paper will focus on The Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT), The General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB) and the Slosson Intelligence Test-Revised (SIT-R).

  1. The General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB)

The general aptitude test battery (GATB) was published by the U.S Employment Service (USES) Division of Testing to match people’s intelligences with jobs that were well suited for them. The GATB consists of 12 different and separately timed subtests which makeup nine aptitude scores. These aptitude scores are form perception, clerical perception, intelligence, spatial aptitude, motor coordination, verbal aptitude, numerical aptitude, and finger dexterity as well as manual dexterity(Hunter J. E., 1986). The GATB is one of the oldest general mental ability tests still in use in the present day and is considered by some researchers to still be unparalleled by other tests. Its target population is all job applicants, irrespective oftheir  level of education, academic performance, or any other demographic characteristic differences such as age, gender, or race( National Research Council, 1989.).

From validation studies spanning over 30 years with a population (N) of 32,124 workers, this instrument was established to have high reliability and validity. With regards to reliability, the GABT was found to have a stability coefficient of 0.81(Corrected) while, in terms of validity, the instruments convergent validity for subtests ranged from 0.50-0.89.Hunter (1986) reported a validity of .75 for the GATB in the prediction of work sample test scores of 1,790 civilian job incumbents. For the same sample, the GATB validity was .47 for supervisor ratings. A military sample of 1,474 yielded GATB validities of .53 and .24 for work samples and supervisor ratings respectively. For both samples, path analyses showed the greatest influence of GMA on work sample scores to be through job knowledge.

The advantage of this test is that it is applicable to candidate assessment for any job position and fits a particular individual to the best jobs that matches his or her abilities, it also allows for ranking candidates according to test scores. However, the use of the testraises concerns with regards to its vulnerability to guessing by the candidates, and the fact that the tests’ ability to predict job performance-validity seems to vary from job to job, and from location to location. Additionally, a problem with GATB is that it tends to have a lower average score with African Americans and Hispanics, and thus their percentile score are not competitive. This test also raises the concern about whether to use separate norms.

  1. The Slosson Intelligence Test-Revised (SIT-R)

TheSlosson Intelligence Test-Revised (Sit-R) is a test that is generally used to evaluate and assess a person’s general mental ability,but is very useful for screening job candidates. It was constructed by Richard Slosson and published in the year 1998. The test is predominantly used for employment purposes, but can also be used as a general IQ measure as well as on psychological patients (Slosson, 1998).

The test assesses the domains of general information, auditory memory, vocabulary, quantitative ability,similarities and differences, and comprehension. The total time that it takes to administer this instrument is 10-20 minutes for administration and scoring.

With regards to its validity and reliability, the SIT-R has been standardized on 1,854 individuals loosely matched to the United States population with respect to social and educational characteristics. Calculating the instruments’ internal consistency using the Kuder-Richardson Formula 20 (KR-20) the reliability coefficients determined by age level ranged from 0.88 to 0.97, with a median of .945 indicating a high level of internal consistency, the test-retest reliability was found to be .96. The validity coefficients for SIT-R through correlations between the SIT-R Total Standard Score (TSS) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale ranged from 0.83-0.91(Slosson, 1998), this is amore than adequate reliability and validity score.

A conspicuous advantage of the SIT-R test is the relatively fast time it requires to administer and score the test. This is for the reason that administration and scoring is done simultaneously. It also has high validity and reliability scores denoting that it has a high predictive power. According toErford(2012, p. 276), the SIT-R is a quick, cost effective, untimed, level-B test useful with for applicants screening.

  1. The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test

This test is the most widely used standardized test to measure constructs of cognitive ability. It is administered to evaluate the aptitude of an individual in regards to problem-solving skills(Groth-Marnat, 2009). It is recognized as a traditional test of cognitive ability and consists of items that measure vocabulary, reading comprehension and math. It is a 12-minute test of problem-solving skillscomprising of 50 questions given mostly to job applicants for screening.However, it can also be used as a marker test of GMA research.This test has been widely used in employee selection and is popularly known for its use in the national football league draft.

The reliability of this test has been examined in many studies with the alpha reliabilities ranging from .82 to .94. The alternate form reliabilities have ranged from .73 to .95. and split-half reliabilities ranges from 0.88 to .94. The test is an example of a spiral omnibus measure with items of various g-related contents arranged in order of difficulty. The correlations of other tests support the construct validity of the test as a measure of GMA.

The key strengths of this test include; the test has been crafted such that it caters for the hearing and visually impaired applicants. The test is also offered in 11 alternate languages. The test is available in a computerized version called the WTP-PC, which incorporates special diagnostic and reporting capabilities to support the testing programs (Hersen, 2004).One shortcoming of this test comes in the form of legal and ethical considerations. The test shows mean score differences by race. These race differences may require employers to expend effort to show that tests are unbiased and are job related.Another drawback is that reading skills are required to take the test and speed is a factor. As a result, it would penalize those with psychomotor deficits or reading deficiencies. Because the test provides only a single score, it may not be as diagnostically useful as longer tests. However, these disadvantages are offset by the obvious benefits of a reliable and valid group measure of intelligence that is easily administered and scored. With regards to costs, the Wonderlic personnel test  is regarded as one of the cheapest test of cognitive ability. The test offers the advantage of lower costs and shorter administration time. If used in the right context it is a valuable test.


In conclusion, although cognitive abilities are important, there has been a tendency to overemphasize their importance relative to other abilities. Sims(2007, p. 179), stated that one must look beyond cognitive ability to the full range of person-related individual differences that can affect job performance when developing a selection system. Jobs are often complex and require a wide spectrum of capabilities that are used to perform them effectively. Therefore, it is critical not to neglect the more non-cognitive skills that drive performance in the workplace. Research has clearly demonstrated that non-cognitive individual differences also contribute greatly to success on the job and it is essential to capture these for designing excellent selection tests that accurately predict job performance.



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