Greg Alexander

Psychometricians pass the test

Baltimore Sun, April 15, 2007

Tests. Whether it was a simple “pop quiz” in a junior high school history class or a crucial SAT exam that would greatly influence your future, tests have always been a source of anxiety, stress and nervousness. Tests are used in every facet of our lives – from early education to standardized placement testing to qualification tests used in the workplace – and while we’ve all been aware of the importance of doing well on these tests, few have actually considered the methodology and thought process behind the structure and content of tests. And most people may be surprised to learn that there is an entire branch of science dedicated to the study of the makeup of tests.

Psychometrics, a branch of psychology, is the “study of the development and theories of psychological and educational tests, the rationale behind them and the reliability and validity of these tests. Basically, it studies what makes a test useful,” says Elizabeth MacDougall, Ph.D., the instructor for Loyola College’s psychometrics class at both the undergraduate and doctoral level. “With any test you’ve ever taken – whether it’s a test in school, job-related test, standardized test or a test from a research company, psychometrics was involved.”

MacDougall says that in order for a test to be qualified as a psychological test, three criteria have to be met. “The test must sample some sort of behavior, there must be rules for scoring or categorizing people and the test must be able to be administered in the same way to different people,” says MacDougall, who has been an instructor at Loyola College for over six years.

MacDougall notes that Loyola College’s psychometrics course is required for all doctoral level students and is a junior/senior level elective course at the undergraduate level. “Most undergraduate psychology majors who intend to go on to graduate school take psychometrics because of the research bent. It looks good on a graduate school application. In applied and research settings within psychology, especially at the graduate school and doctoral level, testing is very important. Most of the students who take the course may think the class is going to be boring and are intimidated at first because the field has a vocabulary all its own. They are surprised to learn how fascinating it is.”

Not only may students find psychometrics fascinating, but the specialty is also one that may result in many different career paths, says Pamela Scott-Johnson, chairperson of the department of psychology at Morgan State University, who notes that recent legislative changes have increased the need for psychometricians.

“With such legislative measures as the ‘No Child Left Behind Act,’ we have entered a high-stakes testing climate, so the need for psychometricians has increased,” says Scott-Johnson, who has been at Morgan State for five years. Scott-Johnson says that the need for more psychometricians in the job market was one of the reasons that Morgan State recently applied for – and was granted – approval for a psychometrics degree program at the master’s and doctoral level, which will both begin this fall (Morgan State currently has a psychological testing course for undergraduates). “It was been well documented in articles in The New York Times, among others, that the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ has had a significant effect on the testing industry. Psychometricians are in great demand by the Educational Testing Services, American Educational Research Association and the American Psychological Association. When people ask where the hot jobs are, I say, ‘psychometrics,’ “ says Scott-Johnson.

Another primary reason for the two new programs at Morgan State, says Scott-Johnson, is the need for more African-Americans in the field. “There are not that many programs in the United States, and there is a particular lack of African-Americans in the field,” she says. “The programs at Morgan State will be unique in that we will be the only minority-serving institution with such a program, so there will be sensitivity to cultural issues. We also draw an array of people here due to our urban environment. Not all the students in the program will be African-American, but as part of Morgan State’s mission and environment, minority issues will be an important part of the curriculum.”

Scott-Johnson notes that organizations like Educational Testing Services (ETS), a nonprofit that provides a range of testing products and services and is involved with such popular tests as the SAT, AP, GRE and TOEFL, have been criticized in the past for how some tests have been developed in relationship to minority issues. With this in mind, Morgan State decided to partner with ETS. “To address ETS’s issues, a partnership is the best way to make a difference. Morgan’s president [Earl S. Richardson] is a member of ETS’s Board of Directors, and our partnership with them will help address the need to be sensitive to people of color when it comes to testing. Internships at ETS also will be available, providing a great entry for our students into the field,” says Scott-Johnson, who serves on committees related to the GRE test.

“Assessment is very unique to the field of psychology, and psychometrics is vital in teaching students how to make proper decisions when developing tests and methods to score them. Tests like the GRE, SAT and ACT affect people’s lives in a significant way,” says MacDougall. “I try to scare my doctoral students to really understand the significant amount of responsibility in the use of tests. It’s important to consider how a test can be scored. For example, when the SAT added an essay component, it had to be considered that if 10 people read the same SAT essay, would they come to a similar scoring conclusion. This is especially important where subjectivity is involved.”

Testing and legislative changes are some of the reasons that the need for psychometricians will continue to grow, says Scott-Johnson. “There are so many career options for psychometricians in education, government, business and non-profits. Any company that has an assessment component needs psychometricians.”

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