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History of Psychometric Testing in South Africa

Posted on: 25 January 2017 at 09:07 SAST

± minute read

It is quite possible that psychometric instruments arrived in South Africa with many of the British settlers in 1820, when they brought brass instruments from the Brass Instruments era with them from Europe. What is certain however, is that the first paper and pencil assessment used in South Africa was the Leipoldt-Moll Scale. The Leipoldt-Moll Scale was an early adaptation of the Binet-Simon Scale created by Theodore Simon and Alfred Binet between 1904 and 1905 in France. The Binet-Simon Scale was commissioned by the Parisian Ministry of Public Instruction to identify ‘special needs’ school children, an interest the South African Department of Education also shared. Louis Leipoldt and A.L. Moll standardised their version of the Binet-Simon Scale in 1916 for use by the Education Department of the Orange Free State.

In 1917, the University of Stellenbosch inaugurated its new Department of Psychology, which was headed by R.W. Wilcocks. Testing the ability and aptitude of individuals using group-administered assessments was an important contribution of this department. Partly informed by the Army Alpha/Beta Tests, Wilcocks developed the South African Group Test (SAGT) in 1928. This assessment was used to assess large groups of people in industry and educational settings.

The World War I period (1914–1918) demonstrated the importance of testing and classification of individuals according to their abilities. Non-military applications for group-administered assessments were also considered. In South Africa, the need for assessment was expressed in 1922 by Livie-Noble in an address to the South African Association for the Advancement of Science where he stated that “the employers’ aim should be to have a place for every man, and every man in his place” (Louw, 1987, p. 33). The need for assessment was also stressed by the University of Stellenbosch, the Department of Education and the Chamber of Mines.

Much of the controversy around the use of cognitive assessments started in 1923, when American psychologist Carl Brigham used the Army Alpha and Beta Test to investigate differences of intelligence between racial groups in the United States. Brigham published A Study of American Intelligence, which outlined that African-Americans, on average, seemed to score lower on intelligence assessments than other racial groups. He attributed these findings to inherent differences of intelligence between races. Following on the research done in the US, M.L. Fick commissioned a similar study in South Africa. He used the Army Alpha/Beta Tests and his Fick Scale to measure differences of intelligence between Black and White students.

In 1929, Fick published the results of his ethnic study of intelligence and discovered that there was a significant discrepancy between Black and White students. Black students tended to score lower on intelligence assessments than their White counterparts. Fick proposed environmental, cultural, educational, and social reasons for this discrepancy (he did not, as Brigham did, attribute it to inherent racial differences). This view was supported by the Interdepartmental Committee on Native Education in 1936. The Committee concluded that differences of intelligence between White and Black pupils could not be interpreted given cultural, language and educational differences. In his later work, Fick changed his initial view. In his book, Educability of the South African Native (1939) he argued that the differences between racial groups were due to race, and not external factors. This conclusion would have far-reaching implications for the legitimacy of psychological testing in South Africa in later years.

During World War II (1939–1945), many aptitude measures were developed to place individuals in occupations. This period also resulted in the rise of psychometric institutions such as the Personnel Research Section (PRS) of the Leather Industries Research Institute (LIRI) at Rhodes University (1941) and the Aptitude Test Section (ATS) of the South African Air Force (SAAF) (1941). These institutes tested and placed leather industry workers and air force personnel. Isobel White, who had studied in the new field of Industrial Psychology in London, was put in charge of the PRS; and Simon Biesheuvel commanded the ATS. These two institutions developed test batteries and added immensely to the professionalisation of psychology in South Africa. At the ATS alone, more than 18 000 recruits had been tested and placed during the war. They received international recognition for their work.

In 1943, Simon Biesheuvel entered the debate on ‘African intelligence’. He noted that environmental variables such as education, poverty, culture and language play a large role in the score differences between Black and White South Africans. Biesheuvel’s view directly opposed that of Fick and Brigham. This debate would continue for more than 60 years.

Psychometric testing was not isolated to the ATS and PRS. In 1945, the University of Stellenbosch developed many psychophysiological instruments. These included plethysmographs, which were used to correlate physical body reactions with psychological processes. The psychophysics laboratory at the University of Stellenbosch rivalled international laboratories for many years. In the same year under the recommendation of Jan Smuts’ scientific advisor, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was established. This institution later acted as an umbrella organisation for many social research institutes.

Shortly after the War, a need arose in industry for personnel placement and selection. Although the PRS and ATS were still active institutions, their resources were pooled into the new National Bureau of Personnel Research in 1946. This institution was responsible for psychometric assessment, selection, placement, and research into personnel-related functions of industry. Simon Biesheuvel was put in charge of this organisation. In 1948, the NBPR became the National Institute of Personnel Research (NIPR). At this time industry required assessments for the placement of many uneducated, unskilled, and semi-skilled Black workers in South Africa. The General Adaptability Battery (GAB) was developed at the NIPR for the selection and placement of unskilled Black workers. Biesheuvel concluded in 1949 that many intelligence tests were culturally laden and could not effectively be used to differentiate the intelligence of Black and White workers. According to Biesheuvel, Black South Africans were going through a period of cultural change. It was therefore, more important to measure their ability for change (adaptability) than their intelligence. The GAB was used in conjunction with many other assessments (such as leaderless group exercises) to assess and place illiterate and semi-literate Black and White workers.

The NIPR and the National Bureau for Educational and Social Research developed and adapted numerous assessments between the 1960’s and 1990’s. This included the South African Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (SAWAIS), General Scholastic Aptitude Test (GSAT), the Ability, Processing of Information, and Learning Battery (APIL-B) and the Senior South African Individual Scale – Revised (SSAIS-R). The SAWAIS was released in 1969. This instrument was in fact based on the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Scale and not the revised Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) that was released internationally in 1955. In 1969, the National Bureau for Educational and Social Research was incorporated into the new Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). In 1973, the NIPR was integrated into the HSRC. This made the HSRC the only psychological test provider/distributor in South Africa. The HSRC developed the GSAT in the 1980’s, which was standardised for use with multiple cultural groups. Between 1980 and 1995 researchers at the HSRC adapted, standardised, and/or developed a multitude of assessments including the South African Personality Questionnaire (SAPQ), 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (Form SA92), and the High School Personality Questionnaire (HSPQ). This move by the HSRC from aptitude/ability towards personality testing was in part due to the popularisation of personality testing during this time.

After the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the mandate of the HSRC started to change. The organisation became more focused on redressing equity issues in South African society. Focus areas for the HSRC included poverty, education, and HIV/AIDS. The publication of the Employment Equity Act, No. 55 of 1998, initially banned all psychometric testing (Section 8). After much debate with labour organisations, the EEA was revised to allow the use of psychometric assessment for industry in 1999. However, psychometric testing would only be allowed if such testing were fair, reliable, and valid for all employees and job applicants. In 2003, the HSRC relinquished their role as test distributor and set up a tender process for private organisations to distribute their psychological tests.

Since there was no longer a central test research centre in South Africa, the onus of test development fell to test publishers, academics and individual psychologists. After 2003, a number of new assessments emerged, and were introduced into the market by various test publishers. Just a few of the assessments were: Locus of Control Inventory (Schepers, 1999), Learning Potential Computerised Adaptive Test (De Beer, 2005), Cognitive Process Profile (Prinsloo, 1995), Career Interest Profile (Maree, 2010), and the Basic Traits Inventory (Taylor & De Bruin, 2006). These assessments were all locally developed and considered the South African context in their development. The development of the South African Personality Inventory (SAPI) began in 2005. The SAPI was conceptualised in order to address the need for an indigenous South African personality assessment.

In addition, changes to the Health Professions Act 56 of 1974 introduced more stringent regulation around access to and use of psychological tests. The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) publicly communicated that only psychologists and psychometrists were allowed to use psychometric tests. The Association of Test Publishers of South Africa (ATP SA) took legal action against the HPCSA to challenge the legitimacy of the communication regarding the new restrictions in access to psychological tests in 2009. The ATPSA won the court case in 2010, and the Professional Board for Psychology of the HPCSA began work in earnest towards the development of a new test classification system.

Currently, South African psychological testing is focused on cross-cultural issues. Many assessments have been or are being adapted and standardised in South Africa. New adaptation techniques allow local psychologists more leeway in the construction and adaptation of items for the diverse South African population.

By looking back at the history of assessment, we can learn from it, understand the impact it has on our current thinking, and try to not make the same mistakes again. In order to ensure the continued quality and development of psychological assessments there must be partnership and collaboration between the professional board, test publishers, test owners, universities, professionals, and clients. By working together to ensure the integrity and the quality of each assessment used in South Africa, we build Psychology as a science, ensure ethical practice, and provide maximum benefit to the individual.

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