assessment center technology

Assessments Perform Better than Cognitive Tests

Lynn G. Collins
December, 2015
by Lynn G. Collins, Head of Selection Solutions and Chief Scientist, BTS Assessment Practice -

In the selection space, cognitive ability tests and assessment centers have been used for many years.  Cognitive ability tests are assessments used to measure intelligence.  Assessment centers can be defined as a set of coordinated activities that involve a simulation of actual job situations with challenges that are used to assess multiple dimensions using trained assessors.  There are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to using either type of measure and a debate on the value of both methods has ensued in scholarly literature.  However, new research points to the fact that assessment centers have a distinct edge over cognitive ability tests for selection purposes that practitioners should take note of and consider in their workplace selection practices[1] [2] [3].

Cognitive ability tests have been used in the workplace with mixed success.  These tests are appealing as they are relatively inexpensive, easy to administer, and generally relate to job performance.  While many of these tests are inexpensive to administer, there is a distinct disadvantage to using them for workplace selection.  The historical concern has been that these tests on the surface appear to be neutral but adversely and disproportionately affect protected groups. In a 30-year study comparing intelligence test scores between protected groups in America, the results found that there are differences in cognitive ability testing results between some minorities, compared to white Americans[4].  Cognitive ability tests have been thought to tap into the diversity-validity tradeoff[5]: a tradeoff in which validity of an assessment tool comes at a cost of workplace diversity. However, this tradeoff is not necessary if you have a predictive tool that supports workplace diversity. 

Assessment centers have a long history of demonstrating fairness to diverse groups with little potential for adverse impact[1] and strong predictive accuracy of job performance.[3]    In research disclosed in the Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychology website last month assessment centers were found to be a robust tool that predicts employee performance over and above the performance predicted by cognitive ability tests[1],[6].   This predictive advantage along with the many other benefits of assessment centers including credibility with participants, organizational leaders, and benefits of a realistic “job tryout” demonstrate some of their many advantages over cognitive ability tests.

Unlike most tests of cognitive ability, assessment centers do not have biases unwittingly incorporated into assessment outcomes. Assessment centers draw on the capabilities needed to perform the job and mirror the job and/or business challenges the individual is seeking to take on.  Our assessment centers also involve real people and real interactions with meaningful, actionable and behavioral feedback.     

Previously, despite the strong relationship to performance, cost has been a barrier to the use of assessment centers.  However, new technology for assessment centers has changed this dynamic[7].    Technology has made assessment centers far more accessible and has lowered the costs. Because of this change there is great opportunity to use assessment centers for roles beyond the historic senior leadership focus. Assessment centers are becoming increasingly popular for sales roles and management roles throughout the organization (e.g., first and mid-level management).     

Virtual assessment centers are a top shelf solution with a high return. Distinguishing themselves from cognitive ability tests, they identify the most effective candidates that will be most likely to succeed from a variety of backgrounds.




[1] Sackett, P., Shewach, O., & Keiser, H. (2015, April 23-25). Assessment Centers Versus Cognitive Ability Tests. Poster presented at SIOP Annual Conference in Marriott Hotel, Philadelphia, PA.

[2] Schmitt, N. (1977). Interrater agreement in dimensionality and combination of assessment center judgments. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62, 171-176

[3] Krause, D., Kersting, M., Heggestad, E., & Thornton, G. (2006). Incremental Validity of Assessment Center Ratings Over Cognitive Ability Tests: A Study at the Executive Management Level. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 14(4), 360-371.

[4] Schmidt, F. & Hunter, J. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124(2), 262-274.

[5] Wax, A. (2003). The dead end of "disparate impact." Summer 2012: National Affairs.

[6] Krause, D., Kersting, M., Heggestad, E., & Thornton, G. (2006). Incremental Validity of Assessment Center Ratings Over Cognitive Ability Tests: A Study at the Executive Management Level. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 14(4), 360-371.

[7] Collins, L., & Hartog, S. (2011). Assessment centers: A blended adult development strategy. In M. London (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of lifelong learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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