Welcome to the Yang-Tan Institute at Cornell University's ILR School Link to Cornell University homepage

Disability & HR: Tips for Human Resource Professionals

Providing tools to help HR professionals build inclusive workplaces
Home About Contact
Articles    Checklists    Glossary    Resources

View other articles:

View Article

Article Group: Article Title:   Resources | Disclaimer
Employment Process Employment Process

Pre-Employment Testing and the ADA

Original Date: 1997; July, 2000
Article Outline:
Click heading to view text. |  View Entire Article


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodation in the hiring process, and the language of the ADA includes “appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations” as a form of accommodation. It is the goal of this article to acquaint employers with the legal requirements under the ADA that they must consider in using selection tests.

In order to implement successful selection tests, employers first must be familiar with the legal requirements of the ADA and the rationale behind these requirements. Second, they must identify the specific role of their tests in helping to select qualified employees (in other words, the validity basis for their tests).  Third, employers should be familiar with the types of accommodations that are most likely to be effective in preserving the reliability and validity of the tests for people with various disabilities.

Legal and Regulatory Requirements

Under the ADA, it is discriminatory to use se­lection criteria that screen out or tend to screen out individuals with disabilities unless the criteria are shown to be job-related for the po­sition in question and consistent with business necessity. This is to ensure that tests do not act as barriers to the employment of persons with disabilities unless the applicant is unable to perform the essential functions of the job, even with reasonable accommodation.

Employers should design selection criteria for jobs to ensure a close fit between the selection criteria and an individual’s ability to do the job. Any criterion that tends to screen out an individual with a disability must be related to the position for which the individual is apply­ing and consistent with business necessity. A criterion is consistent with business necessity if it is related to an essential function of the job. In order to reasonably accommodate an applicant during the hiring process, the em­ployer must modify or adjust that process so that a qualified individual with a disability may be considered for the position.

Tests should not be given in formats that require use of the impaired skill, unless it is a job-related skill that the test is intended to measure. For example, it is unlawful to give a written test to a person who is unable to read because of dyslexia, unless the ability to read is the job-related skill that the test is designed to measure. If, instead, the test is designed to measure a factor such as verbal comprehen­sion or reasoning, the test should be given orally. Similarly, test time limits should be relaxed for applicants whose disabilities cause them to need more time to take a test, unless the test is specifically designed to test speed. If speed is necessary to perform an essential job function, however, and no reasonable accom­modation could enable the applicant to dem­onstrate the skill or to perform the job, then the employer is not required to employ the individual.

An employer is obligated to make reason­able accommodations only with respect to the physical or mental limitations of which that employer is aware. While an employer may in­quire whether an employee is having difficulty performing his or her job or participating in the hiring process, it is generally the responsi­bility of the employee to inform the employer that he or she requires accommodation.

Similarly, with respect to testing, an employer is generally required to provide accommo­dations only if it knows in advance that an applicant has a disability that requires accom­modation. Usually, it is the responsibility of the individual with a disability to request any accommodation for a test. The employer can be helpful by informing applicants in advance about any tests to be administered as part of the application process, so that they may re­quest an accommodation, if needed.

It should be noted that the ADA and the Title I regulations prohibit pre-employment in­quiry into a person’s disability or the nature of the disability, with one narrow exception. The ADA permits employers to ask indi­viduals with a hidden disability who request accommodations at the application stage to provide reasonable documentation to verify the disability and the need for accommoda­tion. However, the employer may not make further inquiries as to the nature or severity of the disability. For this reason, employers can use psychological tests at the pre-offer state of the hiring process only if these tests are not medical—that is to say, only if the tests do not provide evidence that would lead to identify­ing a mental disorder.

Test Validity Models

The use of tests for making employment deci­sions is supported by evidence of the tests’ validity under one or more of the following models:

  • Content validity: the test is a representa­tive sample of performance in some de­fined area of job-related knowledge, skill, ability, or other characteristic.
  • Construct validity: the test is demonstrated to be a measure of a job-relevant character­istic (e.g., reasoning ability).
  • Criterion-related validity: the test is shown to be statistically related to some criterion of successful job performance.

Test accommodations should be made so as to retain the validity of the test for selecting qualified employees.

Types of Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations will be discussed under three broad categories: testing formats, time limits, and test content.

Testing format. A change in testing format refers to the use of a different medium or method to present the same information. Test information is usually presented in print in the English language. Therefore, Braille, large print, reader, and audiotape are simply dif­ferent ways of presenting the same informa­tion. In most cases, these formats could be interchanged without a change in the question content or the ability being tested. However, several problem areas exist in the use of differ­ent formats:

  1. Long reading passages may be more dif­ficult when presented orally or in other formats for visually impaired applicants. For oral presentation, the test-taker must try to keep the entire passage in memory. In Braille or large print, scanning through the passage is slower than it is with regu­lar print.
  2. Figural material is problematic for people with visual impairments. The embossing of figural material should not be viewed as a simple format change, because the tac­tile sense is quite different from the visual sense.
  3. When readers are used, they should be people who read well and articulate clear­ly, and they should practice reading the test in advance. They should be warned against inadvertently giving clues to the test-taker when they read.

It should be noted that changing a test from a printed version into a sign language version is a translation into another language, rather than simply a change of format. It must be done with all of the care that would be taken in translating a test from English into, say, Japanese.

Time limits. In most cases of accommodated testing it is necessary to change the test’s time limits. Often the change in time limits causes a problem in interpreting test results. This problem arises because of the use of “speeded power” tests. In order to understand this problem, it is necessary to learn a bit of testing terminology.

A pure power test is a test in which everyone has an opportunity to attempt to answer every question, and the scores are based upon how many questions people can answer rather than on how fast they can work. The pure speed test, on the other hand, contains questions of trivial difficulty given with a very short time limit. Scores are based only on how fast people can work. Many tests that are intend­ed to be power tests are actually somewhat speeded because a considerable number of people are unable to attempt every question. On a speeded power test, a person who had unlimited time would have an advantage over people who took it with the regular time limit. However, since many people with disabilities, e.g., Braille users, need extra time to take tests, there is the difficult problem of determining exactly how much extra time should be allot­ted so that the test-taker with a disability is at neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.

The ideal solution to this problem would be to eliminate the use of speeded power tests. If a power test has a liberal time limit, with a completion rate of, say, ninety-five percent of all test-takers, then test-takers with disabilities can be given unlimited time without having an undue advantage. The difficult question of how much extra time to allow would no lon­ger need to be answered.

In the case of existing speed power tests in which the regular time limits cannot be changed, unlimited time may be inappropri­ate. One method of determining appropriate time limits is to conduct empirical studies. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducted a study to set time limits for visu­ally impaired and deaf applicants on one of its large volume examinations. It was found that at least double time was needed for visually impaired users of all media to answer ques­tions that consisted of a short reading passage followed by five answer choices. Mathemati­cal questions involving computation required considerably more time than that. Such em­pirical studies are only possible in large-scale programs in which there are many test-takers.

Pure speed tests are used in the employment context to test such skills as perceptual speed and clerical checking. Such tests are clearly inappropriate for use with visually impaired test-takers because all of the media for trans­mitting information are slower, and for some physically impaired applicants, because the physical mechanism for responding (e.g., marking the answer sheet) is slower. The time limit cannot be adjusted on these tests because speed is the factor that is being tested. There­fore, the test user must decide if the speed test should be used with the regular time limit (which is permissible, as noted in the earlier section on legal and regulatory requirements, if the speed factor is necessary to perform an essential job function and the applicant cannot meet the requirement even with reasonable ac­commodation) or if the test should be deleted from the battery and possibly be replaced with another type of assessment. This would be an instance of the last type of test accommoda­tion—change of test content.

Test content. In the context of competitive testing for persons with disabilities, changes in test content are not made frequently. However, it is clear that this type of change is a form of accommodation that may be required for compliance with the ADA. Any change in test content would need to be consistent with the validity strategy on which the test was based. For example, substituting one test question for another is easily done under a construct valid­ity model, but might be troublesome under a content validity model.

Changes in test content can be divided for convenience into three types: change in individual test questions, change in the question-type, and change or deletion of a knowledge, skill, or ability (KSA) that is being measured. The first type of change, as mentioned above, is easily done in a construct-valid test. The second type of change—using a different type of question to test the same ability—is feasible if another question-type exists and if scoring comparability can be determined.

The interpretive guidance to the EEOC’s Title I ADA regulations describes some bold sub­stitutions of methods for measuring the same KSA’s, as the following excerpt shows:

“Where it is not possible to test in an alterna­tive format, the employer may be required, as a reasonable accommodation, to evaluate the skill to be tested in another manner (e.g., through an interview, or through education, license, or work experience requirements).”

This excerpt does not reflect a concern for score comparability. In fact, it is difficult to see how this approach could be used if applicants needed to be rank-ordered on the basis of quantitative scores.  

If there is no effective way to test a person with a disability for a certain KSA, and if there is reason to believe that this KSA will not be required on the job by the person, the requirement for measuring this KSA should be changed or deleted.

Accommodation for Specific Disabilities

The following is a brief listing of the types of testing accommodations that are appropriate for test-takers with different disabilities.

For test-takers with visual impairments, tests must be presented in appropriate formats, such as Braille, large print, and audiotape. Time limits must be extended for all of these media, and speed tests are inappropriate. Within the context of changing test materi­als into different formats, certain types of test material may be problematic, as noted earlier. In addition, the test-taker will probably need accommodation or assistance in marking answers.

For test-takers who have physical impairments that affect use of the hands, the principal test accommodation is the adjustment of test time limits and the avoidance of speed tests. In addition, accessible test sites, the assistance of a test administrator in turning pages and marking answers, and extra rest breaks may be required.

Among hearing impaired test-takers, only those who are deaf need extensive testing accommodations. For the majority of prelin­gually deaf persons, that is, persons who lost their hearing before acquiring speech, verbal tests are not good measures of any ability. For most pre-lingual deaf people, English is a sec­ond language and the native language is sign language. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; some prelingually deaf people have very good English skills.) Therefore, as a general rule, verbal tests cannot be used effectively with most deaf test-takers to test anything except verbal ability. Tests that are completely nonverbal, however, do not pose a problem. Test instructions should be given very carefully, with the use of sign language or demonstration, and time limits should be ex­plained clearly. Extra time should be allowed on power tests that include verbal material.

Individuals with specific learning disabilities now constitute the largest group that requires testing accommodations. The specific tasks that are affected by learning disabilities vary widely, so it is difficult to generalize about testing accommodations. Accommodations will need to be arranged on a case-by-case ba­sis for applicants with specific learning disabil­ities. The most frequently used accommoda­tions are the allowance of additional time for power tests and reconsideration of speed tests in areas of specific weakness. For example, a test-taker who has a specific learning disability that affects numerical computation might be screened out by a speeded test of computation. Under the ADA, it would be inappropriate to use that test unless it tested an essential job function that the test-taker could not perform with or without reasonable accommodation.

Top | Back

Home | About | Contact

Articles | Checklists | Glossary | Resources