Since the advent of police civil service testing the primary method of selecting people for promotion was a paper and pencil test (usually a 100-question, multiple choice exam) followed by an oral examination in front of a panel of police officers one rank higher than the applicant. Over the years the process evolved and candidates were provided a reading list to study, more thought was given to parts and weights of the exam process (60 percent written and 40 percent oral or some other math computation), and in some cases an essay component was added to the process.
For many years, police professionals complained that the testing process had very little relationship to actual job performance and tended to favor “good test takers” and did little to test for the skills and abilities needed to successfully perform the job of a police sergeant, for example. The result was that people received promotions to Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and above who couldn’t lead themselves out of the building, let alone lead men and women toward accomplishing organizational objectives. So a new method of testing candidates for promotion began being used across the United States called an “Assessment Center Testing Process.”
It has now become rare for me to not incorporate some form of assessment center testing in the examination processes I create, especially for the higher police ranks.
What is an Assessment Center?
An assessment center is not a place to go to take a test. It is a testing process in which candidates participate in a series of systematic, job related, real-life situations while being observed and evaluated by experts in policing, supervision, and management. Trained evaluators, called “assessors” observe candidates individually and in groups performing exercises/scenario’s that simulate conditions and situations a sergeant (for example) would encounter in real life. It’s this attempt to simulate actual working conditions that separates assessment center testing from the academics of written exams and much of the subjectivity of oral tests.
A Brief History of Assessment Centers
During World War II, agents of the Office of Strategic Command (OSS) came to realize that pure academic training and education were not adequately preparing their operatives for real-life situations in wartime. Their people scored well on academic tests, but sometimes didn’t perform well under pressure and were unable to apply academic principles to real people, places, and things. The OSS developed a series of situational tests that placed operatives into situations that required specific performance behaviors to successfully perform under the conditions they would face on actual assignment. This combination of a written curriculum with situational exercises produced superior personnel. The private sector quickly began using this testing methodology for selecting and promotion and it has now spread to the police testing process.
How Situational Exercises are Developed
The primary method of developing the situational exercises (mini-tests) is similar to that used in constructing more traditional promotional examinations. It begins with the completion of a “job task analysis.” The specific knowledge, skills, behaviors, and characteristics important to successfully performing the job of a sergeant (for example) in a particular department must be determined. After these “critical work behaviors” are identified exercises are developed which evaluate whether a candidate has the traits required for the position. In assessment center testing these are known as “critical success factors” or “testing dimensions.” They are the criteria against which candidates are evaluated and tested. Here are some examples of “critical success factors” which might be used or Police Lieutenant:
1. Supervision: Management and Administration: Knowledge of concepts and theories relative to police supervision, management, and administration.
2. Oral Communication: Effective expression when presenting ideas to an individual or group (includes non-verbal communication).
3. Written Communication: Clear expression of ideas in writing and use of correct form.
4. Planning and Organizing: Establishing a course of action for self and/or others to achieve organizational goals; maintaining appropriate records; use of computer resources.
5. Control: Taking action to coach, monitor, evaluate and correct job tasks, activities, and responsibilities of subordinates.
6. Environmental Awareness: Managing change. Using knowledge of changing situations and pressures inside and outside of the department to identify potential problems and opportunities. 7. Organizational Integrity: Action that indicates support for and maintenance of departmental standards, norms, goals, and ethics.
8. Interpersonal Sensitivity: Actions that indicate an attention to the needs, feelings, and expressions of others.
Obviously, under each of these testing dimensions there could be hundreds of identifiable behaviors which make up what the dimension “Supervision”, for example, consists of. Once the testing dimensions and underlying criteria are established I know what to test for and what type of assessment center mini-test to use to best evaluate a candidate in a specific area. The more a particular type of assessment center exercise measure the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal attributes of a candidate in the test dimensions listed above the more valid and reliable the methodology is. For example, what is known as a “supervisor/subordinate or “employee conflict” mini-test in an assessment center might be used. Typically the candidate is told to report to a room at a specific time. The room has a desk and two chairs. Assessors are sitting in the room with the candidate observing him or her. The candidate is given an envelope and told to follow the instructions inside.” Here is what a candidate for Sergeant might read:
DIRECTIONS FOR TAKING THIS EXAMINATION
You are responsible for budgeting your time during this examination. You have a total of thirty (30) minutes to complete the entire examination process. At the end of twenty-five minutes (or earlier should you conclude before the allotted time) the assessors may or may not ask you questions.
Officer James is outside of this room right now waiting for you to call him in. Read the “Background and Facts” and “The Problem” sections of this examination and to call Officer James in and take whatever action as a police sergeant you deem necessary to resolve the situation outlined in the scenario.
“Assessors” will be in the room and observing and grading how you handled the entire employee conflict examination. You are to handle this situation and take the steps that would be required if you were a Sergeant in the _____ Police Department.
Background and Facts
You are Sergeant John Jones and currently assigned as a Sergeant in the patrol division in the _____ Police Department. Officer James works directly under your supervision. Officer James is a 20-year veteran of the department. During the past six months Officer James’s job performance has significantly deteriorated. He is often late to work, has failed to submit written reports in a timely fashion, reports he does complete contain obvious errors and must be done over, and he has become argumentative. The officer’s appearance has deteriorated. He has lost over twenty-five pounds in the past six months, has difficulty moving from point to point, and his uniform doesn’t fit properly and is often dirty. He has used five six days in the past two weeks.
You suspect he may be a functional alcoholic.
Two weeks ago you had meeting with Officer James to discuss his job performance. Officer James advised you he was having “family problems” and would “shape up.” He also reminded you of his excellent past record and that he “broke you in” when you came on the department.
Officer James is on duty right now. He has a strong odor of alcohol on his breath, was thirty minutes late for work, and is not in uniform. Officer James is outside of this room right now waiting to see you at your request. Call Officer Jennings in and take whatever action you deem necessary as a police sergeant to resolve the situation.
A role player plays the part of Officer James and the assessor are noting everything the candidate does and says to the officer and grading the applicant for a series of what has been pre-determined to be the appropriate method to handle the situation. Of the eight testing dimensions previously identified five are critical in the scenario provided.
Supervision: Management and Administration: Knowledge of concepts and theories relative to police supervision, management, and administration.
Oral Communication: Effective expression when presenting ideas to an individual or group (includes non-verbal communication).
Planning and Organizing: Establishing a course of action for self and/or others to achieve organizational goals; maintaining appropriate records; use of computer resources.
Control: Taking action to coach, monitor, evaluate and correct job tasks, activities, and responsibilities of subordinates.
Organizational Integrity: Action that indicates support for and maintenance of departmental standards, norms, goals, and ethics.
Interpersonal Sensitivity: Actions that indicate an attention to the needs, feelings, and expressions of others.
There are many other Assessment Center mini-tests including the in-basket, leaderless discussion, situational oral exam, and media event, to name just a few. Future articles will provide insight on how to excel in each of them.