Exploring why career practitioners use assessments, as well as how they can select the appropriate tools and effectively interpret client results
By: JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey
Assessment has played an important role in career guidance since its beginning in the early 20th century. According to the Joint Committee on the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing of the AERA, APA and NCME (Joint Committee on Testing Practices, 2004), the definition of assessment is “Any systematic method of obtaining information from tests and other sources, used to draw inferences about characteristics of people, objects, or programs.” This article uses the term “career guidance” to refer to interventions with young people and adults related to educational and vocational choices. The purpose of the article is to review with career development facilitators and counsellors the purposes, options and guidelines for use of assessment in career guidance and counselling.
Purposes of assessment
It is possible to view the plethora of assessment instruments available in our field in three categories: a) those that support career exploration, b) those that identify career development needs, and c) those that measure accomplishment in areas related to educational or career development goals. Let’s look at each of those separately.
The purpose of the first segment of assessments available in our field is to help individuals find focus for exploration. This segment includes inventories of interests, skills, work-related values and personality characteristics. The number of occupational options is vast, with 974 groups of occupations defined in O*NET (the National Occupational Classification [NOC] system categorizes jobs in Canada), each of which can be broken down into many more defined occupations. The National Career Cluster Framework (Advance CTE, 2019) defines 16 industry-related clusters, which can be divided into 79 groups called pathways.
To find focus for exploration
The Holland classification system (Holland, 1997) defines six work environments, under which hundreds of occupations are categorized by educational levels in the Dictionary of HollandOccupational Codes (Goddfredson & Holland, 1996). It is impossible for individuals seeking to choose an occupation to learn about all of these options. Thus, one very valuable use of assessment inventories is to find focus for exploration.
ACT’s World-of-Work Map (Prediger, 1981) arranges hundreds of occupations by Holland work environments and 26 Career Areas. There are assessments whose results direct individuals’ focus to options in each of these four organizational schemes, allowing them to identify groups of occupations that align with their interests, skills, values and/or personality traits. Career explorers can then identify specific occupations they are interested in and “reality test” (using Donald Super’s term) this manageable set by reading, job shadowing, course work, etc.
To identify career decision-making and development needs
Though it sounds easy to administer an interest inventory, interpret it and shepherd career decision-makers through exploratory interventions, a significant proportion of career explorers have intrapersonal challenges that need to be removed before they are able to follow a logical process to a well-informed choice. Theorists define these barriers differently. Super (1957) describes a poor self-concept or the lack of completing specific development tasks as barriers. Krumboltz (1991) focuses on negative career beliefs. Sampson and his colleagues (1996) refer to negative career thoughts. Dinklage (1968) emphasizes ineffective decision-making styles.
The assessment tools in this category measure such intrapersonal challenges. The results may be used to work with individuals on specific identified problems or, for example, to assign members of a career planning course to different levels and kinds of intervention.
To measure progress in desired learning or attitudes
Similarly, such assessments may be used for research or for program evaluation. For example, a measure of career decidedness may be administered to two matched groups: one that has not had a course in career planning and one that has had such a course. The hypothesis is that the group that has completed the career-planning course will have a higher mean score on career decidedness than the group that did not have the course. Such an assessment could also be used with one group prior to taking the career-planning course and again afterward. The goal in this case would be to measure change in specific career attitudes or behaviours triggered by the content of the course.
Assessments of this kind can also be used to measure the attainment of skills, such as behavioural skills or academic skills. After individuals receive training and retake such tests, an increase in these skills can be measured. Similarly, students’ achievement toward mastering specific standards or goals can be measured by instruments in this category.
Types of assessments
Assessment tools in our field are typically divided into two categories: formal and informal. Formal assessments have these characteristics: a) their content, specific items, scoring algorithms and score reports are developed with scientific rigour; b) this fact results in the publisher being able to state their reliability and validity; and c) the combination of the first two makes it possible to compare the score of an individual to that of another or with those of a group with a high degree of scientific accuracy.
On the other hand, these characteristics – scientific rigour, known reliability and validity, and capability for comparison with others – are not central to informal assessments. They are tools such as card sorts, checklists, career fantasies, questionnaires and structured interviews. They own a legitimate space in our field and are used skillfully by many counsellors. They cost far less to develop and acquire, and they can be administered with far less advance planning.
Scientific rigour includes the careful completion of tasks such as the following:
- Clearly defining what is to be measured
- Clearly defining the component parts of what is being measured
- Developing items that measure the component parts
- Testing these items with members of the target population and modifying or replacing those that do not function well
- Choosing a norm group that mirrors the target population for which the assessment is developed
- Developing norms for various ages or grade levels
- Designing score reports that can be readily understood by counsellors and those who took the assessment
Methods of administering assessments
Informal assessments are typically administered by a counsellor or career development facilitator face-to-face in an office or classroom setting. For example, students or clients are asked to sort a set of cards, each of which contains the description of a value, into three stacks: those that “highly appeal to me,” those that are “somewhat appealing” and those that “I’d like to avoid.” In a different setting, a counsellor or career development facilitator may ask students in a career planning class to relax, close their eyes and imagine an ideal day at work – its location, work tasks, co-workers, degree of independence, length, concomitant lifestyle, etc. In yet another approach, a counsellor who has detailed knowledge of Holland’s theory may conduct a structured interview around the six work environments. In each of these cases, a trained counsellor is able to help a student or client draw inferences from the informal assessment that sheds light on potential career choices or changes.
Formal assessments are administered in print or digital forms. If they are standard tests in print form with right or wrong answers, they are administered under controlled conditions usually involving standard instructions, specified time limits, security of testing materials and test monitors. Such tests may also be administered in a computer lab, requiring that individuals prove their identity to access items that are delivered through a secure website. Some achievement or aptitude tests are adaptive, meaning that the computer selects items at increasing levels of difficulty until it finds the examinee’s general level of knowledge and then presents items only at that level. This type of test varies both in items used and in length of testing for different students.
Technology has revolutionized assessment in many ways, offering capabilities such as the following: adaptive testing; the use of videos, graphics and audio; administration to large numbers of people nationwide at their selected time; immediate scoring; online personalized interpretation of results; electronic transfer of results to counsellors; and the ability to easily share results, where appropriate.
Guidelines for selecting assessments
Following are some guidelines that may be helpful when selecting assessments to use with clients or students:
- Define clearly what you want to measure and why. Possibilities for what you want to measure could include interests, skills, aptitudes, personality traits, values, academic achievement, learning style, decision-making style and self-efficacy, to name a few. Reasons for measuring these might include to design career guidance interventions for individuals or groups of individuals, to define segments of your target population to receive different sets of interventions, to measure the effectiveness of your program, to determine whether students have achieved the goals set forth in a specific set of standards, etc.
- Develop a list of assessments designed to measure what you want to measure. Using a resource such as NCDA’s publication, A Counselor’s Guide to Career Assessment (Wood & Hays, 2019) will be invaluable. It describes assessments designed for various purposes and the 7th edition uniquely gives you online access to expert reviews in order to make an informed choice.
- Gather as much information as you can about the assessments you have identified. It is essential for you to determine whether each assessment has been developed and tested with individuals like those in your target population. For each, learn about its reliability, validity and theoretical base. Take the assessment yourself and administer it to a few students/clients. Study its score report to see if it is presented in a language and with graphics that will make it understandable to your population. Talk to or read reviews from counsellors who have used the assessment. Importantly, determine if the results of the assessment are compatible with other components of your program. For example, if your school’s occupational information is organized by Holland work environments, use an interest inventory that provides results by Holland types. Last, but certainly not least, assess the quality of the publisher. This involves the credibility of the author, the professional reputation of the publisher, the training offered to assure that the assessment is administered and interpreted properly, and the quality of customer service provided.
- Determine its practicality for your setting. This criterion includes how the assessment is administered (print or electronic) and scored, how counsellors can get training, length and requirements of administration, and cost.
Guidelines for interpreting assessment
Here are some guidelines for providing interpretation:
- Provide interpretation as soon as possible after students or clients have taken an assessment. Begin interpretation by reviewing why the person took the assessment and what it was like (eg, “you responded to 60 items by selecting one of five answers – like very much, like, neutral, dislike, dislike very much”). If true, be sure to indicate that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers.
- Provide the score report to the examinee and explain each section simply and in detail. If you conduct interpretation in a group, use an attractive PowerPoint presentation with a sample score report that students/clients see while having their own report in front of them.
- Provide an opportunity to students/clients to ask questions, and try to make sure you answer all questions immediately or within a reasonable timeframe.
- Be sure that you apply the results on the score report to the specific career concerns that the student or client is facing at the moment. This, of course, is the real reason for having taken the assessment. Its interpretation should be used to guide course selection, the tentative selection of an occupation or job, or whatever career concern the student or client has brought forward or your program of services is attempting to support.
This article has provided a general overview of the purposes of assessment, types of assessment, methods of administration, and guidelines for selecting and interpreting assessments. Understanding these concepts is just the beginning of preparation for informed use of assessments in career counselling and guidance. In-depth investigation of the effectiveness of specific assessments in various work settings and with members of various populations is essential.
JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, EdD, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international authority in the areas of career development and counselling and a pioneer in the development and use of computer and web-based career planning systems. She has served as a high school director of guidance, university professor, career counsellor, executive director of the ACT Educational Technology Center, vice-president for development at Kuder, Inc., and president of the National Career Development Association. Dr Harris-Bowlsbey is the author of numerous print-based curricular materials, is widely published in academic journals and texts, and has delivered hundreds of workshops to counsellors at conferences and universities around the globe. She is the author of numerous versions of web-based career planning systems, of curricula for training of career development facilitators, and co-author of a leading textbook for the training of master’s level counsellors.
Advance CTE. (2019). National career clusters framework. Silver Spring, MD: Author.
Dinklage, L.B. (1968), Decision strategies of adolescents. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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Sampson, J.P., Petersen, G.W., Lenz, J.G., Reardon, R.C., & Saunders, D.E. (1996). Career Thoughts Inventory. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers. New York, NY: Harper.
Wood, C. & Hays, D.G. (2019). A counselor’s guide to career assessment instruments. Broken Arrow, OK: National Career Development Association.