If your district is considering using personality tests to hire teachers, take a few moments to read through this article and consider if personality tests are a good fit for your hiring practices. While school leaders want to ensure they are hiring the most qualified staff members, you may find that personality tests aren’t as useful as they appear to be.
Imagine for a moment that your district decides to implement personality tests used to hire teachers. Imagine the personality tests used to hire teachers required job candidates to sit in a chair and allow a personality “specialist” to place their hands on the job candidate’s skull. The purpose of the exercise would be to measure the shape and contours of the potential teacher’s skull to try to determine if they possessed personality and character aptitudes that the district reckoned were necessary for the position. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
While the exercise described above sounds ridiculous, it was practiced all over the United States and Europe through most of the 19th century through a “science” known as “Phrenology.” It was the pseudoscience personality test of its day. A widely respected physician of his time, Franz Gall, developed the theory and practice of locating and feeling bumps on a person’s head to determine levels of personality traits. Gall believed regions of the brain controlled innate personality traits. He theorized that bumps and contours around the skull were determined by pressure from regions of the brain. Gall believed these regions determined personality traits for humans (they don’t). Gall called the traits our “fundamental faculties.” His theories were widely adopted and “phrenologists” sprang up all over the United States and people soon began to search for the utility of this practice in the professional workplace. In the Phrenological Journal of Miscellany from 1841 one author wrote,
“Let me remark however, that wherever a skilled labor is wanted, phrenology is not an index to its possession. Rather, it reveals only what capacities nature has bestowed, but does not tell to what extent they have been cultivated. If we wish to employ a bookkeeper, we must ascertain by inquires, whether he has been taught to keep books. If we wish to hire a cook, we must learn, by the same means, whether the individual has been instructed in cookery. But, phrenology will enable us to discover, whether the candidate for employment has received from nature strong or weak animal propensities, strong or weak moral sentiments, strong or weak intellectual faculties; whether an indolent or active disposition; and these items of information are very difficult to be accurately obtained by any other means.”
Phrenology was not without its skeptics. In 1911, journalist and writer, Ambrose Bierce observed phrenology was, “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp.” Similar observations could be made regarding many personality surveys used today.
The claims made in phrenology journal and the practice of phrenology are laughable today. We look back and wonder how, in the name of science, were people able to be hoodwinked into believing the practice was a valid method to measure personality traits in people and potential employees?
I would argue that many personality tests used to hire teachers are pseudoscience, not much different than the ridiculous practice of feeling bumps on a person’s head to measure personality. We have evolved from scalp readings to rating scales, but the validity of many personality tests would likely be similar to validity levels in phrenology. The criticism against personality tests used to hire teachers may seem harsh, but consider what empirical research has found for the past several decades. In 2013 an article from the Cornell HR Review reported,
“A 2010 review of the academic literature found correlations between personality and job success to fall in the .03 to .15 range, which the authors note is “close to zero.” To put these correlations in perspective, personality tests used in employee selection account for approximately 5% of an employee’s job success while the other 95% of their performance is unaccounted for by personality.”
It’s also worth considering that many personality tests on the market have virtually zero validity. Personality assessments like Myers-Briggs, or the MMPI are still marketed and used in districts across the country to hire teachers, even though they demonstrate little if any validity or reliability and have resulted in adverse legal action when challenged in court.
Not All Personality Tests Used to Hire Teachers are Equal
Some personality tests used to hire teachers have some validity. More recent measures, such as the Five-Factor Model (FFM), also known as the Big Five have been empirically studied and have demonstrated small, but reliable measures of validity. The FFM encompasses five personality factors that have demonstrated a relationship to employee job performance: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Among these five, conscientiousness has demonstrated the most significant correlations with employee job performance. However, it should be noted that few studies have been able to explain more than 10% of the variance in employee job performance through valid personality measures used on the market today. Put another way, roughly 90% of employee job performance cannot be explained by personality measures and are attributed to other factors that are not measured in personality assessments. In other words, personality tests used to hire teachers should not be given too much weight, especially early in the teacher selection process.
Recommendations for Using Personality Tests to Hire Teachers
The most essential consideration that must be made when using personality tests to hire teachers is to ensure the validity of the test. Legal challenges brought by disgruntled employees not selected almost always address the job relatedness (content validity) and reliability of tests used to select candidates. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wants employers to get employee selection practices right. They aren’t out to “get” employers, but they do exist to ensure best practices are utilized and that employment law is followed. On the EEOC’s website they offer these important tips to consider when using personality tests to hire teachers:
- Employers should ensure that employment tests and other selection procedures are properly validated for the positions and purposes for which they are used. The test or selection procedure must be job-related and its results appropriate for the employer’s purpose. While a test vendor’s documentation supporting the validity of a test may be helpful, the employer is still responsible for ensuring that its tests are valid under UGESP.
- If a selection procedure screens out a protected group, the employer should determine whether there is an equally effective alternative selection procedure that has less adverse impact and, if so, adopt the alternative procedure. For example, if the selection procedure is a test, the employer should determine whether another test would predict job performance but not disproportionately exclude the protected group.
- To ensure that a test or selection procedure remains predictive of success in a job, employers should keep abreast of changes in job requirements and should update the test specifications or selection procedures accordingly. [It should be noted that this is true for any position a school district employs. It also reinforces the importance ensuring school district job descriptions are updated, at a minimum, every 3-5 years].
- Employers should ensure that tests and selection procedures are not adopted casually by managers who know little about these processes. A test or selection procedure can be an effective management tool, but no test or selection procedure should be implemented without an understanding of its effectiveness and limitations for the organization, its appropriateness for a specific job, and whether it can be appropriately administered and scored.
The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises professionals should explore their options carefully when attempting to use personality assessments for employee selection. In recent article SHRM warned human resource professionals and organizational leaders, “Even after careful selection of an assessment, they shouldn’t rely solely on the test results when making hiring decisions.” Personality assessments can offer incremental validity to a regimen of employee selection practices, but again should not be given considerable weight in the overall employment decision. The article mentioned above suggests important considerations if school districts do decide to utilize personality tests to hire teachers. The article states the strongest personality tests used in the hiring process are those that:
Traits of Effective Personality Tests
- Measure stable traits that won’t change over time.
- Are normative in nature, comparing one applicant’s scores against others.
- Provide a “candidness” scale to indicate how likely it is that the results accurately portray the test-taker.
- Have high reliability, producing the same results if the same person takes it again.
- Have been shown to be valid predictors of job performance.
Additionally, if districts decide to use personality tests to hire teachers they should also be prepared to ask themselves and test vendors questions and verify the responses. A few questions to consider are:
Questions for test vendors:
- What is the personality test designed to measure?
- Does the test developer have evidence that verifies the personality assessment is valid and reliable?
- How easy is it for applicants to take and fake the personality assessment?
- Is the personality test free from bias and does it comply with federal employment laws?
Questions for the district:
- Does the district have a recent job analysis where subject matter experts have identified personality traits essential for the position?
- Has the district validated, using reliable job performance measures, that employees who possess high levels of desired personality traits perform better than those who have lower levels of desired personality traits?
- Does the personality assessment used result in disparate impact (disproportionately exclude people in a particular group by race, sex, or another covered basis), even unintentionally, on groups protected under Title VII? If so, can the employer show that the selection procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity?
- Is the personality assessment being used to increase the incremental validity of the selection decision or is the assessment being used to efficiently narrow the field of job applicants?
Final Thoughts on Using Personality Tests to Hire Teachers
A fairly recent meta-analysis that examined personality assessments found “The validity of personality tests is typically quite low,” but “personality tests could potentially add a small amount of incremental validity to a battery of cognitive tests.”
Personality tests used to hire teachers cannot be entirely dismissed as our generation’s phrenology. Clearly personality assessments have some they have some utility and can add small, but statistically significant incremental validity. If your district decides to use them, it would be wise to select them cautiously and ensure their validity in practice before using them hire teachers.