Justices To Weigh Bias In Civil Service Tests

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a case involving Connecticut firefighters who took a test for advancement in the ranks. The only people who passed were white. When the results were thrown out, some white firefighters sued. Psychologist Jerry Morris offers his insights on how a civil service test might be discriminatory.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The U.S. Supreme Court takes on an important case about race tomorrow. It centers on a test that New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters took for advancement in the Fire Department. Several black and Hispanic applicants took the test, but all of those who passed and qualified for lieutenant or captain were white and only one was Hispanic. The city threw out the test and some of the white officers who passed it sued. For some background on using tests for hiring, we turned to Dr. Jerry Morris, a psychologist in Nevada, Missouri and an expert in testing in personnel matters. Dr. Morris says, tests are at times thrown out, but, he says, testing should be only part of any hiring process.

JERRY MORRIS: For instance, we might know that someone who is my age - 59 years old - might score more poorly on certain sections of certain types of selection tests, but we might adjust that by saying that age group also has shown to do pretty well using their experience on the job. So, you would never just use a personnel selection test as your only trigger for hiring - or your only selection tool - but it's used as an amalgamation of one of many tools.

SIEGEL: Can you actually look inside a test without seeing what the results are, can you, as a psychologist, look at a test and say, this test will work against the following groups? Or do you have to see a track record for that test and who's fared on it to be able to tell that?

MORRIS: Well, you would never just do that, but you can do a kind of, construct validity and even face validity analysis of the content of tests and see if there are certain terms used that might be misunderstood or better understood, and you would understand that as maybe a limitation of the test. But at the same time, you would never do that kind of study alone. You would also look at the statistical predictability of it.

SIEGEL: In the fire department, I think we'd want everybody to know all the same words. I mean, they should be able to communicate with one another.

MORRIS: Well, you would hope that the test is culture-fair and culture-free. In other words, if you came to Missouri and you pronounced it Missouri we would know you were from the North. And so, language does make a difference in understanding - of language makes a difference. So, that's why you don't just have anybody select and give these tests, but you have committees of experts that'll look at how it's validated, what the reliability and validity is, and what the predictive validity for the sub-populations you're screening is.

SIEGEL: Historically, when did we, as a people, become as attached as we have been, or perhaps still are, to this sort of testing?

MORRIS: Well, actually it started in the late 1800s with scientific management by a man by the name of Taylor in Midland Steel company, and it grew from then. When World War I and World War II came around, the government became interested in psychologists - in organizational psychologists - and started to find out that we could help them select leaders and personnel that would do well under stress. And so, the government began to develop a series of very, very effective and well- validated used government selection tools that are now ensconced in all of the branches of the military and in government offices for personnel selection.

SIEGEL: How did those tests get around inherent biases against some groups?

MORRIS: Well, the key to any test - a test is like a fly rod with a fly fisherman: you can buy an $800 rod or you can buy a $99 rod, and there's some advantage to the $800 rod, but if you don't put it in the hands of the right fly fisherman you don't catch a lunker. This is why you have to be careful which doctors you assign to the committee that selects test and their appropriateness, which doctors you assign to the interpretation of test data. And it's not something that is for people who don't understand the complexities of test's use. And there's the area you see more often that the problems of tests, is you don't have people who are highly skilled and qualified at selecting, interpreting and using these instruments.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Morris, thank you very much for talking with us.

MORRIS: Thank you, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Jerry Morris, a psychologist in Nevada, Missouri, who has studied psychological testing in personnel selection.

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