Future of Work

Aptitude Tests: Are They Effective in Opening Students’ Minds to More Career Paths?

By Alyson Klein — April 27, 2021 2 min read
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Boys grow up to be engineers and computer scientists. Girls become nurses and teachers. That seems like an antiquated notion in a world where many students are encouraged to explore a wide range of careers. But the stereotypes persist.

Aptitude tests—which seek to measure students’ potential in a particular field—may be one way to help students from pigeonholing themselves into career paths early on, a study recently published in Cambridge University Press found.

Aptitude tests that evaluate students’ strengths, as well as examining their passions and personalities, are gaining favor in school career counseling programs.

To understand how these tools may nudge a particular student toward a field they may not have considered—or even heard of— researchers at the University of Missouri conducted an independent review. The study compared 7,222 high school students’ natural aptitudes with their self-reported interests in four areas: manufacturing, computer technology, construction, and health care.

For healthcare, the study looked at both a student’s capacity and interest in direct patient care jobs (such as being a doctor or nurse) and more technical jobs in the healthcare industry (think X-ray technician.) The study included 3,619 females and 3,603 males.

The researchers used both aptitude and interest tests created by YouScience, one of a handful of interest and/or aptitude tests school districts are using to help guide students’ career exploration. (At the researchers’ request, YouScience funded a stipend for a research assistant to help with the project.)

Just asking kids what their interests are and matching that with a particular set of careers can be helpful, the researchers say. But giving students an aptitude test that measures their potential in an array of fields might give them a nudge to consider jobs that they could excel at, but aren’t as familiar with, or didn’t think they could be good at.

“If you just look at people’s interest scores, they fall into areas which I call what they are exposed to, what they can see based on their life experiences. Many young people are exposed to very little,” said Richard Feller, a professor emeritus at Colorado State University who worked with the Missouri researchers on the study. Students’ different life experiences create an “exposure” gap, he said, that aptitude tests can help bridge.

This is especially true when it comes to women and STEM fields, the study found. Just 12 percent of women are interested in careers related to information technology. But aptitude tests show that just as many women as men have the capability to excel in that field.

The study found that more than four times as many girls were found to have potential in manufacturing, more than seven times more in construction and technical health care fields, and two times more in computer technology than an interest inventory alone would show. What’s more, males were more than 1.6 times more likely to show promise in patient care positions.

“It opens up all kinds of opportunities for students who have been less fortunate, who have been stereotyped, come from areas of little enrichment, or [have] maybe faced gender issues,” Feller said. “We’ve got great potential that we’re [not] tapping into.”

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