Aptitudes, Abilities, and Interest: A Roundtable Discussion with Kuder's Research FacultyIn response to the popularity of our last post on aptitude tests, we're returning our focus to the topic this week. What follows is a roundtable discussion moderated by Beth Wingert, a Kuder product development team member and professional development instructor. 

Roundtable Participants

  • Spencer (Skip) Niles, Senior Vice President of Research, Dean and Professor of Education for the College of William and Mary, President of the National Career Development Association (2018-19)
  • JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, Executive Director of Product Development, President of the National Career Development Association (1996-97), Trustee of the American Counseling Association Governing Council
  • Jack Rayman, Research Faculty for Career Center Implementation and Evaluation, Senior Director Emeritus of Career Services and Affiliate Professor of Counseling Psychology and Education at The Pennsylvania State University
  • Hoi Suen, Research Faculty for Assessment, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology at The Pennsylvania State University
  • Jerry Trusty, Research Faculty, Outcome and Evaluation, Professor Emeritus of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology, and Rehabilitation Services at The Pennsylvania State University
  • Rich Gates, Kuder Chief Product Officer

BW: Welcome, and thank you for taking part in this roundtable discussion on what's recently become a hot topic: aptitudes. How would you describe the renewed appeal of measuring aptitudes? Or — perhaps a better place to start — what are aptitudes, and how do they relate to career guidance and career decision making?

RG: The term aptitudes is one that is commonly used both in everyday language and in professional discussions among career counselors, human resource specialists, psychologists, and educators. Despite this common use, it’s rarely defined with precision. Some loose definitions equate aptitudes to “natural abilities” or “natural talents” or even “natural propensities,” but there are many issues that remain within such an understanding.

HS: A more precise, technical definition of aptitude is that it is a person's natural potential to learn or to achieve. This potential to learn is what is natural (as in sports, we often describe someone as a “natural”); not taught or learned. It is in practice very difficult to test aptitude without ending up testing achievement. This is because the scores on a test that claims to measure aptitude should not be increased by short-term cramming, tutoring, or coaching.

You see, if scores can go up after tutoring or some similar intervention, then it is evident that what you are testing is not a “natural” potential, but achievement. The overwhelming majority of tests that claim to measure aptitude today are actually testing achievement – especially those that measure mental abilities such as numerical computation.

SN: And perhaps that understanding brings us back to Beth's opening question regarding the current fascination with aptitudes.

Many of the recent conversations have tried to place aptitudes over and above interests as the most relevant factor in career guidance and career decision making. The advocates for this approach are proposing an odd equation. They are essentially taking a social justice approach to argue that by highlighting aptitudes, rather than interests, we can mitigate the effects of differences in contextual affordances. That is, interests, in their minds, are overly influenced by exposure to opportunities and that exposure is influenced by affluence. And some people are buying that.

HS: Odd equation indeed, Skip. From the perspective of testing, in practice it will most probably end up having the exact opposite effect on social justice – keeping or expanding the existing social gap. Let me explain. Remembering my earlier distinction between testing for aptitude versus testing for achievement, we know that achievement reflected by mental tests is correlated with family income.

So, claims of guiding students based on aptitude will likely turn into guiding students based on achievement, and achievement is highly related to opportunity-to-learn; therefore, in practice these “aptitude” based systems will have just the opposite effect on social justice. This reminds me of an interesting story about aptitudes and achievement. Do we have time for me to share?

BW: Yes, please do! This is a fascinating discussion.

HS: When the famous SAT test was developed in the 1930s, SAT stood for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. When it was apparent in the 1970s that test-coaching companies could help students increase their SAT scores, the company quietly began referring to the SAT as the Scholastic Achievement Test.

In the 1990s, there was a worldwide movement to eliminate multiple-choice testing and replace it with performance assessment. “Assessment” became the buzzword, and the company changed their reference again to claim that SAT stood for Scholastic Assessment Test. Finally, about 10-15 years ago, they decided to follow the tactic of KFC [Kentucky Fried Chicken] and simply call their product SAT®.

JHB: An excellent point, Hoi. And in this bridge to “assessment,” you offer me an opening to the question of purpose. Whether it’s the SAT or aptitudes or achievement or interests or something else, assessments in our field should be used for two main purposes.

First, they should be used to assist individuals to find focus for exploration. Second, they should be used to measure progress toward some goal that is important for career planning. Good information processing or career decidedness are two useful examples. If the domain being assessed does not serve one of these purposes, then it seems that it is not relevant to career guidance counseling.

JR: I agree with JoAnn's identification of the twofold purposes for assessment in our field; however, I would elaborate on those purposes to highlight the importance of interest assessment and that its purposes include several more specific goals.

First is to enhance personal focus and self-exploration. Second is to enhance understanding of the occupational structure and of occupational classification systems. Third is to provide a personal interest comparison to the interests of individuals in various occupational criterion groups. Fourth is to confirm or dispute self-perceptions with the goal of enhancing self-assurance. Fifth is to measure personal change, growth, and development. And finally, most assessment devices are themselves interventions that act upon the individual being assessed thereby promoting positive behavioral change.

JHB: Excellent points, Jack. Career development and choice theories consistently inform us that the first step in education and career planning should be to learn about yourself – specifically about interests, skills, and work values.

School retention, stability of choice of college major, and job satisfaction are significantly enhanced when individuals are able to align their interests, skills, and/or values with occupations, programs of study, and jobs.

JT: I agree with all the reactions from other research faculty members; but, to get back to aptitudes, the biggest problem I have is with what I’ve seen in the media as a promotion and focus toward aptitudes and not interests.

The past century, beginning in the years during and following World War I, saw many knowledgeable people devote decades of research to both interests and aptitudes. The United States Army pioneered the modern era of research into aptitudes. In 1917-1918, the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests were developed so that military commanders could begin to measure the aptitudes or abilities of their personnel.

BW: Wow, that’s a much deeper history for aptitudes than I’ve seen claimed by others. Most point as far back as the 1940s and World War II and have highlighted the U.S. military developing methods to determine whether recruits would be better at flying airplanes or fixing them.

JT: Yes, there is much more to interests and aptitudes than media stories and press releases have time to consider – perhaps more than they want to consider in some cases.

RG: The historical development of both interest and aptitude assessments beginning in the 1910s and continuing through to today is its own fascinating story and one that includes several key figures, including our own Dr. Frederic Kuder. But to the immediate conversation, a key aspect to me in the measuring of aptitudes is that so much has remained rooted in the study of abilities that were important to the military as it existed in the mid-20th century and in the factory, office, and other workplace environments of that same era.

The aptitude assessments of today continue to largely reflect and emphasize the same abilities that were needed to successfully perform work in an era before the electronic and digital industrial revolution that took off in the 1970s. And that, in turn, is entirely before the fourth industrial revolution that is unfolding now in the 21st century as artificial intelligence, big data analytics, advanced robotics, cloud computing, and other technologies entirely reshape the world of work over the next 10, 20, 30 or so years.

HS: I think this hits an important point. From where I stand, assessment is not an end in itself. Rather, we use the information gained from assessment to guide our actions.

So, what would you do in a career development system with the information you gain (assuming reliability, validity, and fairness) from assessing such aptitudes, abilities, and achievements as visual comparison speed, sequential reasoning, numerical reasoning, numerical computation, hand-eye coordination, visual memory, and pattern memory? If you use it to guide career choices, would you guide a student with high scores in these areas to explore careers that you know are increasingly being replaced by robotics? Or would you encourage students with low “ability” scores in these areas to receive training in these skills – again skills that are useful for occupations that are increasingly being replaced by new technologies? If neither of the above two actions is taken, what do you do with these assessment scores? How do you use them to guide career decisions?

SN: To play devil’s advocate on this, the argument I might make is that reliance on interest assessments is biased as they tend to tap into what someone has been exposed to: lower socio-economic status students as well as students of color receive much more limited exposure to activities across interest areas. So, to borrow a developmental framework term, the result is that interest assessment favors students with more contextual affordances.

“Natural abilities” provide indications to areas in which students may have both aptitude and interest. They also note that ability self-estimates reinforce the effects of discrimination and bias. A lack of support for engagement in nontraditional activities can lead to a perceived sense of “that opportunity isn’t for people who look like me or who come from where I come from.” Or, to put it all more simply, exposure matters.

HS: From the perspective of assessment, there are two different levels of bias. The general contextual impact of experience that you speak of, Skip, is one level. For instance, U.S. culture tends to encourage girls to “like” social, helping activities more; and boys to like investigative, thinking activities more. The other level is the more specific assessment item-content and contextual bias. For instance, for artistic activities, girls are more encouraged to like “dancing” while boys are encouraged to like “playing drums.” So, dependent on which activity is presented in an assessment item, the level of artistic interest changes for the same boy or same girl.

Well-constructed interests assessments, such as Kuder’s, are free from the second type of activity-specific bias. As you said, the first type of societal bias needs a fundamental cultural sea change that is way beyond what can be influenced through a brief one-time assessment of any type or even via short-term online counseling.

SN: Stepping back away from being the devil’s advocate, the advantage to emphasizing interests in a system like Kuder’s is that students using such a system from elementary school on get broad exposure to interest areas. Ours is a “K-to-gray” argument. To put it another way, if the argument for emphasizing abilities has any merit whatsoever, then the intervention of an aptitude assessment is coming too late. The effects of exposure already exist. They emerge in early childhood and elementary school and the interventions needed to overcome them require much more than any online experience.

HS: This raises another question for me. Do students who pursue their area of interest without the skills eventually learn or develop the necessary skills; or, do students who pursue areas for which they have the potential aptitude for but no interest at all eventually develop the interest for that area? For example, should we persuade a child who is a “natural” in piano to pursue a career as a pianist even though the child hates playing the piano?

A friend of mine, whose daughter was a “natural” in figure skating, wanted her daughter to succeed in figure skating. The daughter spent her entire childhood and the family spent all their resources paying for coaches, lessons, and traveling to competitions. By the time she was 18, the daughter was ranked in the top 10 in the country – then one day as a freshman in college, she declared that she had never been interested in figure skating and then quit it forever.

BW: So, do aptitude assessments still have a relevant role in today’s world?

RG: Looking forward, as best as possible, I think it’s important to recognize that the aptitudes or abilities important to work will be changing.

The World Economic Forum recently published its report on the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2019. Virtual teleportation to work sites, social robots, and DNA data storage are just of few of the technologies they identify as having the potential to transform how we work and play together in the near future. Existing industries will be reshaped. New industries will emerge. Here is their claim: “As the parts [of emerging technologies] are knitted together, expect to see changes in daily life and work that are as dramatic as those sparked by the widespread adoption of smartphones.”

At least some of those changes will cause us to see ability and aptitude in new ways – ways which were not possible 40 or 60 years ago when the foundation of today’s ability assessments was being formed.

JHB: What you describe, Rich, has parallels in the initial theory of career development assembled by Frank Parsons and supported by eminent theorists such as Donald Super and John Holland. Parsons developed his model against a background of social upheaval that included rapid urbanization and immigration, economic change resulting from industrialization, and scientific advances.

The shifts happening in today’s world may look different on the surface, but the categories hold tight. And what has proven to be consistently true across all is that self-knowledge is an absolute prerequisite to informed exploration and choice of occupations, training, and jobs. Exploration of that self-knowledge begins best when it starts with interests.

The career development process is itself a journey reflecting interactions between how we choose to spend our time on Earth and the opportunities we experience while we’re here, and careers are manifestations of our attempts to derive meaning from those experiences.

Learning and exploring what can bring you happiness, knowing what drives you to persist, to make planful decisions, and to aspire to the next step is something more central. Because once you know that, you then have a guide to help you navigate needs and demands for specific abilities, aptitudes, achievements, skills, knowledge, work activities, and job tasks that themselves will inevitably change and evolve.


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Ask the Kuder Coach: Is an aptitude test a good way to narrow down career options?


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About The Author

Beth Wingert

Beth Wingert serves as a career coach and professional development instructor for Kuder. She is a Global Career Development Facilitator–Instructor and a Certified Career Advisor™.