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Understanding how police examinations are created

It has been my experience that candidates for promotion spend hours studying either the wrong things or material they already know

Test validity and reliability

Police promotional examinations, which consistently withstand review by the courts and successfully match candidates with job performance, have two things in common: test validity and reliability. A 1968 Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power, 401 U.S. 424, requires that promotional examinations have a direct relationship to success on the job.

For a test to be valid, the testing process, when taken in its totality, must test specifically for factors determined to be “important” and even “critical” in order to successfully perform a job. The stronger the relationship between these critical success factors and the tests’ ability to evaluate them, the more effective the test is as a selection tool. For example, how critical is it for a detective to understand and be able to apply probable cause? Absolutely critical, right? Well, the next step would be to determine how we test for that “knowledge” and the “ability” to apply it.

For a promotional test to be reliable it must consistently and dependably measure those characteristics needed to perform a job properly over a period of time. Why should you care about the concepts of test validity and reliability? Because any test is merely a prediction that the candidate scoring the highest is better able to do the job. The stronger the relationship between test validity and test reliability, the better that prediction becomes.

For our purposes — which is making sure you come out No. 1 — you need to have had this background information to understand the next piece of the puzzle, which is important if you want to plan how to study for a police promotional examination. It has been my experience that candidates for promotion spend hours studying either the wrong things or material they already know.

The job task analysis

The more you know about a thing the better able you are to understand it. In the case of police testing, knowledge about how promotional selection processes are created is the basis for achieving high scores. There are several ways that those who create police promotional examinations ensure that the tests given to candidates are related to job performance (that they measure what they’re supposed to be measuring).

One method is to perform a job task analysis, a systematic process that defines the important and critical knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits (also called “KSAPs”) required performing a job successfully over a period of time. This is done through observation — actually observing a representative sample of the people in the position performing job tasks — by completing behavior and job-task checklists and surveys, and by conducting face-to-face interviews. In these interviews, the test analyst meets with individuals who hold the rank/position for which the test is being designed and asks them predetermined questions in order to find out how frequently they perform a specific job function and what degree of importance they attach to it.

The job task analysis is the engine that drives the police promotional testing process. Once we understand what knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits are required to be a sergeant in a particular department, for example, a process can be designed to test for those KSAPs deemed to be most critical to that job. This is one method to ensure the examination process is job-related and valid.

The test announcement

Your state, city or town is usually required by its charter, or its personnel regulations and labor laws, to notify those eligible to fill vacancies in positions of a higher classification. This notification must include the method by which a selection for promotion will be made. Most agencies fulfill this obligation by creating a “test announcement” posted in a prominent place within the department.

The test announcement contains a wealth of information important to you in planning your study program — it tells you what’s going to be on the test. In the announcement, there will be a section titled “Duties and Responsibilities” or “Summary of Position” (or similar words) that those giving the examination have determined as necessary to successfully performing the job. You’ll also see a section titled “Desirable Knowledge and Skills” or words to that effect. An example in a sergeant’s or lieutenant’s test announcement might be: “Ability to supervise employees on a variety of levels, including knowledge and ability to apply positive, negative and progressive disciplinary techniques.” Based on that, you know that the test will include written questions (multiple choice or essay) and oral questions or assessment-center supervisor/subordinate exercises. Write each of these topic headings found in the test announcement on an index card for future reference.

Your index card on “Discipline” might look like this:


Discipline: Accomplishing organizational objectives by coaching, training, instructing, and correcting subordinates to improve their job performance.

Negative Discipline involves punishment for poor job performance usually after positive means have been tried and failed. Is immediate for misconduct. Supervisor should inform subordinate in private exactly what is lacking in job performance or behavior, what needs to be done to bring the performance or behavior up to an acceptable level, and what consequences will occur if the performance or behavior do not reach an acceptable level.

Positive Discipline is not punishment. It is the teaching, counseling and instructing of subordinates in order to encourage them to improve work performance and/or behavior.

Progressive Discipline describes a disciplinary process with progressively stronger measures for repeated offenses. A usual progression consists of counseling, oral reprimand, written reprimand, suspension and termination. Severe misconduct requires acceleration of the process.

There are many other things you could put on the index cards under the topic of “Discipline,” but you get the main idea.

In the next article, we’ll learn how to study.

Be safe out there!

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.