Five Reasons that Test-Takers Don’t Do Well on Timed Tests of Knowledge and Reasoning Skills

It’s not an uncommon occurrence:  you meet an applicant who has a strong resume and presents himself or herself well in an interview.   This candidate may even have listed a college degree, or advanced training in a technical field, on his or her resume.  But when you administer a standard test of general mental abilities, the results surprise and disappoint you.   

Here are the most common reasons that a candidate who made a good interview impression, or had apparently good education background, nevertheless does not do well on a standard test of reasoning ability: 

  1. The candidate may have been distracted by noisy surroundings, interruptions, or even illness, that affected his or her concentration on the test questions.

The best way to control this possibility is to provide a quiet, controlled environment for the test-taker.  If that is not possible, advise the test-taker to arrange for a quiet, uninterrupted space for the duration of the test.

2.  The candidate may have been hurrying to finish the test, or trying to beat the clock if it was a timed test (and most tests of mental abilities are), rather than taking his or her time to reason through the questions.

Advise the test-taker that accuracy is as important as working quickly to “beat the clock.”  

  1.  The candidate may have good verbal skills, but still have difficulty with reading and understanding.  This can cause under-performance, especially if the test-taker is taking the test in a language that is not his or her first language.

Most mental abilities test publishers account for this problem by offering the test-taker a choice of language in which to take the test.  In addition, reassuring the candidate that hiring decisions are based on all job-relevant information, and not just on a test score, can assure the test-taker that he or she will be treated equitably.

4. Frequently cited as a reason for poor performance on a timed mental abilities test is “test anxiety.”  In fact, just about everyone feels some anxiety about taking a timed test, and often that pressure helps a person focus and make an extra effort to do well.  Research shows that probably less than 15% of adults have such severe test anxiety that it affects their performance on timed tests.  

Assuring your candidates that hiring decisions on based on all of the job-relevant information you have about the candidates, and not just on one test score, can help lower test anxiety.

  1.  The test-taker has poor reasoning or problem-solving skills.

The results you see may, in fact, be an accurate measure of how quickly the person solves problems.  This may be the case even if the test-taker has claimed education, such as a college or post-graduate degree, that suggests higher mental abilities.  Remember, even if the claimed education is true, there is wide variation in entrance and achievement standards across all educational institutions.  Another possibility is that the claimed education may not be accurate.

Regardless of the reason for the unexpectedly low results on a mental reasoning test, the important thing to consider is the job-relevance of mental abilities.  How important is it that the person be able to exercise sound, independent judgment?  How important is accuracy and attention to detail under time pressure for the job for which this person is being considered?  What experience does this person have from similar jobs that might outweigh any potential liability of in his or her mental abilities test results?

It’s always important to remind ourselves that the results of a mental abilities test is just one piece of all of the job-relevant information about an applicant that should be taken into consideration when making a hiring or promotion decision.