The test that awards an English professor 33 per cent for literacy

April 18, 1997

Dubbed the "nous test" at its launch in March, the Graduate Employability Test is a national, computer-based test of a graduate's "working style and business acumen". The GET, its creators explain, aims to provide accurate information about a graduate's employability in the current climate of confusion.

Employers have been vociferous in condemning the mixed bag of graduates emerging from a mass, diversified higher education sector. Industry figures have complained that a university degree no longer guarantees essential basic skills. The new test examines the requirements most employers demand: numeracy, literacy, business ability and computing awareness. It couples these with a personality profile that includes an analysis of team working and communication skills.

The rise of the small firm as a major graduate employer and mounting pressure on personnel managers as graduate numbers swell have led some businesses to weed out job applicants on fairly spurious grounds. GET's publicity machine has suggested that criteria as dubious as the handwriting of a potential recruit are being used to select employees.

As an optional enhancement to an individual's CV, or as a compulsory part of a firm's recruitment policy, the new test thus has a huge potential market - 350,000 graduates a year. And, if each jobhunter pays the up-front fee of Pounds 85 plus VAT, the potential for making serious money is obvious. But the test's success rests on its credibility.

The test technology is run by US firm Sylvian Prometric, which has seen some two million candidates in America through similar tests. Jonathan Brill, the director of GET Developments, was a Higher Education Quality Council auditor and is project director (teaching development) at Brunel University. The test has a host of high-profile backers - the National Computer Centre devised the computer skills test; industrial psychologists Saville and Holdsworth have endorsed the personality profile; and the business awareness section was "prepared under the guidance" of the Business and Technology Education Council.

But the Association of Graduate Recruiters, cited in the publicity campaign as a major contributor to the test's development, withdrew formal support after learning that it was a commercial venture. Keen to encourage research into the employability question, the AGR was enthusiastic, but cooled following new research challenging the assumptions of what employers want. A survey earlier this year found that "basic skills" were less important to employers than the unmeasurable attributes fostered by higher education, such as independence.

Armed with all this information I went to take the test with mixed feelings. Security at test centres is tight - my friendly invigilator at the plush Oxford Street office demanded two forms of identification and all but frisked me before letting me into the hermetically sealed rooms. With a camera fixed on candidates at all times, cheating is rather difficult.

Three tests are required: business awareness, computing awareness and a personality quiz. I found the structure of all three rather dubious. Take my "Business Awareness Score Report" - overall score 79 per cent. With 100 per cent in four out of eight sub-categories, and above the threshold in all but one of the others, the test print-out may well help a harassed personnel manager think I am at least worthy of an interview.

But how were the scores arrived at? Eight areas of knowledge, all deemed "essential" by employers, are examined in just half an hour with a mere 24 questions. My 100 per cent for literacy was based on just three questions. Answer one wrong, and you're already down to 66 per cent. The "Computing Awareness Score Report" is slightly better. This time three sub-categories, General Computing, Word Processing and Advanced Computing, are based on five or six questions each. My GET results also found me 100 per cent numerate and gave me 100 per cent for my verbal reasoning skills, for my awareness of equal opportunities legislation and for my financial awareness.

The GET's scatter-gun analysis of my "personal working style" was bound to identify some genuine attributes. But it was littered with contradictions. "You are an independent worker, more effective as a lone unit than as a team member," I was authoritatively told. Three paragraphs later: "You are likely to remain very much part of the team." Elsewhere I was heartened by the fact that I "can get my message across", only to be deflated in the next paragraph with the damning insult: "You may fail to convince or persuade others".

Its creators will argue the GET is not supposed to be anything other than a useful tool to aid the selection process, and is not a definitive measure. A CV does not come with an embossed certificate of authority like the GET. But at Pounds 100 a go, a simple handwriting sample for the personnel department's amateur graphologist to analyse might be better value for money.

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