You are currently viewing Quantifying Potential: Cognitive Testing in Pre-Employment Screening

Can employees’ potential performance be calculated before they even start the job? Since the introduction of standardized cognitive testing, companies have sought to use these tools to select employees best suited to the job, especially for demanding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While many of these assessments have demonstrated practical predictive ability, questions remain about their fairness and broader applicability.1 Indeed, some assessments seem to disadvantage certain groups more than others, potentially engendering legal issues. As a result, industries have not widely adopted these tools. Furthermore, questions exist about what precisely these cognitive tests measure—that is, are employers testing general intelligence or more specific skills? As firms continue to modernize their hiring process in search of the best employees, cognitive testing will undoubtedly play a role, but its full impact remains to be seen.

Advantages of Cognitive Testing

While it may not be possible to calculate an employees’ full potential mathematically, studies indicate that general cognitive ability accounts for about 42 percent of job performance.3 That is, general cognitive ability tests are highly predictive of future job performance, as demonstrated by numerous statistical analyses. Employers who do not use cognitive testing as part of their pre-employment screening miss out on a powerful predictive tool. Likewise, most cognitive assessments are brief and cheap to administer, saving valuable time and money in the selection process.3

While experts debate what these tests measure, the consensus is that they reflect an individual’s ability to acquire knowledge quickly—a vital aspect of any job. Cognitive test results directly predict an employee’s training performance, giving companies a way to predict who can adapt to the job right away and who may struggle.4 Fast learners are precious in today’s world, where agility can define organizational success. Adaptive employees are particularly vital to STEM fields, which are currently undergoing a talent shortage. With more openings than jobseekers, STEM organizations need employees who can learn new concepts quickly and apply them to different roles.  For your firm to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, employees with mental flexibility are crucial to staying ahead of the curve, and cognitive testing can predict future success in this capacity.

Questions of Validity and Fairness

While cognitive tests have demonstrated predictive ability for some aspects of job performance, their overall validity still comes into question. For example, experts point out that many cognitive tests correlate more strongly with training performance than actual on-the-job metrics.1 Some also challenge whether cognitive tests can be generalized or if organizations would benefit more from assessments tailored to specific positions or fields.

Fairness issues have also proved challenging to account for with cognitive assessments. Studies indicate that certain minority groups score lower on average, whereas others score higher. These problems have produced legal battles, most famously Griggs v. Duke Power, where the Supreme Court ruled that companies must prove a selection test is “a business necessity” if it “produces adverse impact against protected group members.”1 This ruling resulted in widespread abandonment of such assessments.

Companies looking to apply cognitive testing while ensuring equity for minority groups have tackled the problem in several ways. One example is using a pass-fail approach to cognitive assessments, with the cut-off set in a way that ensures adequate representation of groups. However, legal rulings have limited this strategy if it still excludes a significant number of a protected group.1 Another option is banding, in which employers treat specific ranges of scores as functionally the same; however, this does reduce utility. On the other hand, banding may be the best option for reducing adverse impact on protected groups with the most negligible impact on predictive ability.

Potential Solutions: Combining Personality and Cognitive Assessments

Although cognitive assessments have demonstrated much better predictive ability than personality assessments, the latter has also shown validity. For organizations looking to maximize predictive power, combining personality and cognitive assessments can give a balanced perspective on potential employees. However, firms must weigh the impact of such predictors on protected groups to ensure equitable representation and avoid legal troubles. Nevertheless, combining personality assessments with cognitive assessments does appear to reduce the latter potential adverse impact.1

Quantifying the Intangible

In STEM fields, professionals prize hard data and concrete conclusions. However, cognitive testing as applied to industrial and organizational psychology often produces as many questions as answers. Still, after decades of application, cognitive assessments have shown ample evidence of strong predictive ability. While employers may still be far from quantifying the entirety of a prospect’s potential, cognitive testing can bring hiring managers one step closer to the complete picture. On the other hand, firms seeking to take advantage of these tools must take steps to ensure equity and inclusion to remain ethical and legally compliant.

Having the right talent is key for companies in STEM looking to stay ahead of the competition. AllSTEM has the experience to help you find skilled science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) candidates to support your organizational goals. To find out more, visit AllSTEM at