Psychological Measures in the Multicultural South African Context

South Africa is deeply embedded in the roots of its past and so it inevitable that psychological assessment today would be greatly influenced by the history of our country. Foxcroft (1997) argued that there is a grave importance to understand the impact that South Africa’s past apartheid policies have had on the development and use of psychological testing. In her paper she addresses the impact of Apartheid policies on test development and use as well as linguistic, cultural and norm factors that would pose a threat to the fair, unbiased and ethical use and interpretation of psychological tests.

This assignment will follow a similar outline, whereby the past and present of psychological assessment will be discussed in order to understand why the status of psychological assessment has not progressed to the level that was expected of post-apartheid South Africa. Finally, the laws or statutory controls that have been used to regulate measures will be discussed. It is important to firstly understand what psychological testing is and when it can be used.

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According to Krupenia, Mouton, Beuster and Makwe (2000), a psychological test is an “objective and standardized measure of a sample of behavior” (Setshedi, 2008).

Tests must meet three important criteria; validity, reliability and standardization. According to Gadd and Phipps (as cited in Groth-Marnat, 2009), a standardised test is one which keeps the test items, administration, scoring, and interpretation procedures consistent thus allowing comparisons between scores. The aim of standardising tests can therefore be described as structuring tests so as to compare different persons’ scores (Gadd and Phipps, 2012).

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However, a problem arises due to the diverse and multicultural contexts of South Africa.

It becomes difficult to yield fair and unbiased results without taking into consideration the language, culture and norms of the participants. The Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998 (Section 8) refers to psychological tests and assessment specifically and states that: “Psychological testing and other similar forms or assessments of an employee are prohibited unless the test or assessment that is being used: Has been scientifically shown to be valid and reliable, can be applied fairly to all employees and is not biased against any employee or group” (van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2004).

However, this has not been fully achieved and psychological testing in South Africa faces many challenges. These challenges or pitfalls owe themselves to the ideologies of the past, namely, Apartheid. The status of psychological testing in South Africa today cannot be considered without reflecting on the past discriminatory laws and practices of apartheid. These laws discriminated politically and were based on demographics, that being race and social class. The policies and legislation passed during apartheid influenced the way in which test development was approached (Foxcroft, 2004).

According to Foxcroft, 2004, the development of new culturally relevant tests has been minimal and the reason for this is that there is a “dire shortage of test development capacity in South Africa at present. ” Joseph & van Lill (2008) state that these large inequalities perpetuated during Apartheid may be embedded in South Africa’s social and economic structures and as a result, variables such as language, race, socio-economic status, the environment and social and educational backgrounds serve as major challenges to the validity, reliability and standardisation of psychological testing.

As was mentioned , “The practice of psychological testing in South Africa needs to be understood in terms of the impact that past apartheid political policies have had on test development and use” (Foxcroft, 1997). To understand this, it is important to reflect on the history of psychological assessment in South Africa. History of psychological assessment

There is close relationship between science and politics in South African psychology (Claassen, 1995; Cooper, Nicholas, Seedat, & Statman, 1990; Nell, 1997) and so it is not surprising that the development of psychological tests during the apartheid era was shaped by the politics and ideologies of the time. Under the apartheid regime, there was segregation along racial lines of residential areas and education. Job policies ensured that certain jobs were reserved for certain groups, namely the white population.

Claasen (1997) asserts that psychological testing was introduced to South Africa through the British and the development of psychological tests has followed closely to the patterns of tests in the USA. South African tests however, were developed in a context of unequal distribution of resources as a result of apartheid policies and were thus used to exploit black labour and deny black people access to education and economic resources, thereby perpetuating apartheid. It was therefore inevitable that psychological tests would follow the same kind of segregation along racial lines.

As a result, assessment became an asset to the Apartheid regime and was reinforced by those scientists who believed in the Western concept of Intelligence (Foxcroft, 1997). Laher (2012) speaks of tests that were standardized for educated white South Africans but were administered to “illiterate, uneducated or poorly educated black South Africans” without investigating as whether the test was free of bias and suitability for the latter group of individuals. This, once again was done so as to use the results to justify that the white race was superior.

Socio-political developments in the latter half of the 1980s led to the start of the abolition of racism advocated by apartheid. It later became apparent that there was a demand from the industrial and educational sectors of society, for common tests that would not be unfair or discriminatory against race or culture (Claassen, 1995). Test developers were then under a great deal of pressure to give consideration to test bias and to also develop unbiased psychometric tests that were not designed to place one group as superior to the other and that would not discriminate along racial lines (Claassen, 1995; Owen, 1991; van Eeden & Visser, 1992).

However, it appears the transformation of test development and testing practices has made less progress in the 1990s than was expected and this can be pinned down to the challenges faced due to the “multicultural and multilingual context of South Africa” (Foxcroft, 2004), thus making the process of transformation more complex. The perception that psychological testing was unjust somewhat changed in the post-apartheid years, however, this transformation of test development and testing practices has made less progress than was expected because of the complexity of developing unbiased and fair testing practices (Foxcroft, 1997, pp. 30). Some of the major pitfalls associated with psychological assessment stems from the “dire shortage of test ability capacity in the country at the moment” (Foxcroft, 2004). There are very few tests that have been developed in SA, that account for the multicultural, multilingual and socio-economic aspects of the country. South Africa boasts eleven different official languages and an array of different cultures and norms. Although, language and culture are both linked they are completely different and thus pose individual challenges to the assessment process. Culture

According to Hall and Maramba (2001), the role of culture in psychology in general, has been of a secondary nature and has acted as a “moderator or qualifier of theoretical propositions assumed to be universal in scope” (as cited in Gergen, Gulerce, Lock & Misra, 1996). Hall and Maramba (2001:12) further go on to say however, that there is an increasing awareness that European American psychological theories may be of limited relevance in non – European American contexts and thus by considering cultural issues, it can only help in making psychology more comprehensive and relevant.

It is therefore important to understand the role that culture plays in the psychological assessment process. The fact that culture has been somewhat ignored in psychological testing becomes a major pitfall as according to Foxcroft (2004), “the South African society has a diversity of cultures in which appreciation for the culture of origin exists alongside variations in acculturation towards a Western norm” (as cited in Claassen, 1997).

Culture-fairness of tests and applicability across different groups of people has emerged as some of the most important themes associated with the fair and ethical use and interpretation of tests (van der Merwe, 2002) and thus it is vital that these objectives are met. With this said, the onus is on the psychological assessment practitioner to use caution when interpreting results especially within the context of South Africa. Without measures with culturally relevant content and appropriate norms, fair testing practice may be compromised thus leading to test bias. The debate around norming

The debate around the norming of psychological tests is a complex one. The question practitioners ask themselves is whether norms should be used or not. Some say it is a way of “addressing the inequities in cross-cultural applications of tests” (Paterson & Uys, 2005), others felt that creating different norms for different groups could be seen as discriminatory and almost comparable to apartheid practices (Paterson &Uys, 2005). A comment from a participant in the study done by Paterson and Uys (2005), put the whole debate into perspective and stated that, “You should not develop a norm on those people for whom the test does not work.

That is a prerequisite: you can only norm on groups where your test is reliable enough to use” (Paterson & Uys, 2005). Foreign tests Psychological tests in South Africa are adaptations of foreign tests and from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s were developed specifically for the white population, not taking into consideration culture and language so as to further differentiate between the white and black population. This has become a major challenge for psychological assessment today as there are very few psychological tests that have been developed in South Africa, that take into account cultural biases, norms and language.

The works of Joseph and van Lill (2008) looks at the history of this country and they suggest that there was a recognised demand for tests that were more suitable for the different race and language populations. This need or demand grew during the latter parts of the apartheid era, where there had been a need for change to the discriminatory policies and ideologies of the time. This all occurred during the 1980s to 1994. During this time there had been many studies, which served to prove bias in foreign tests being used in South Africa. The first thorough study of bias was by Owen (1986).

He investigated test and item bias using various tests, for example, the Senior Aptitude Test, the Mechanical Insight Test and the Scholastic Proficiency Test (van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2004). He found that there were significant differences between the test scores of black and white participants. His conclusion was that understanding the reasons for these differences and counteracting them would be a major challenge. This proved to be true as even now, psychological test bias in terms of demographics and culture remains a major pitfall of the assessment process.

Retief (1992) concluded that “personality tests seldom retain the level of reliability” and even loses some validity when used across cultures and the validity (Joseph & van Lill, 2008). Abrahams (1996) and Abrahams and Mauer (1999) concluded in another study that some tests such as the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) “could not be used across different racial groups, as the reliability was not acceptable for the black groups” (Joseph & van Lill, 2008). These results highlighted problems with the construct and item comparability of the test.

From the conclusions made by the above psychologists, it is proposed that in order for an imported psychological test to be adopted in South Africa, it must be carefully researched, before it can be used within our South African context (Joseph & van Lill, 2008). Language From looking at the imported tests into South Africa, that being those imported from Europe and the US, it is evident that they have been developed and standardized in English. This poses a major problem in the South African context.

Joseph and van Lill (2008) state that taking into account the history of South Africa’s language policies and differences in language proficiencies; it is evident that when a psychological test is administered in English, individuals from a different demographic group find difficulties in understanding the test. South Africa boasts eleven different official languages and not everyone in South Africa can speak fluent English. According to Joseph and van Lill (2008), this may have a negative influence on an individual’s performance on a test (Meiring, Van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2006).

Thus, it is of great importance that language be considered when assessing the appropriateness of a psychological test in a multi-lingual context (Van de Vijver & Leung, 1997). There have been some tests that have been translated, for example the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), which has been translated for Setswana-speaking University students in an attempt to standardise the WCST. However, even though translations have been made, there appears to still be some problems as English words with multiple meanings cannot be adequately translated. English idioms cannot be expressed in another language without changing the entire sentence structure along with the underlying logic of the sentence—and when that happens standardization, and the guarantee of fairness it promises, is lost” (Richmond, n. d). The 16PF test used as an example to illustrate the use of foreign tests also serves as a good illustration here. Abrahams (2002) concluded that participants whose home language was neither English nor Afrikaans found that the items of the 16PF were more difficult to understand (Joseph & van Lill, 2008).

Tests such as the General Scholastic Aptitude Test (GSAT); Ability, Processing of Information and Learning Battery (APIL-B) and Paper and Pencil Games (PPG) are the only psychological tests available today in all eleven official languages. From the cases above, it is clear to see that issues relating to standardization, norm development and cross-cultural relevance to test material are evidence that there are major pitfalls associated with psychological measures used in a multicultural South African context.

Statutory Control It is important for certain measures and instruments in psychological assessment to be regulated by law, especially when it involves culture. If there are tests that do not take into account culture and norms, fair testing practices may be compromised (Foxcroft, 1997); thus the need for strict statutory control of psychological assessment. According to Mauer (2000) there are two pieces of legislation that regulate the assessment process.

The first piece includes acts and regulations which take the form of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996), the Labour Relations Act (66 of 1995), and the Employment Equity Act (55 of 1998), (Mauer, 200). “These Acts deal with matters of individuals’ rights and with specific substantive issues” (Mauer, 2000). The second piece of legislation is the Health Professions Act (56 of 1974) in which “the scope of the profession of psychology, and the responsibilities and duties/functions of psychologists are addressed within the context of health care in the country” (Mauer, 2000).

According to Mauer (2000), it is also important to note that the law restricts psychological assessment measures to only registered psychological professionals. The Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998, Section 8 (Government Gazette, 1998), stipulates that: “Psychological testing and other similar assessments are prohibited unless the test or assessment being used – (a) has been scientifically shown to be valid and reliable, (b) can be applied fairly to all employees; and (c) is not biased against any employee or group” (Mauer, 2000).

Apart from legislation, there are also guidelines which help perpetuate fair and ethical practices. According to the International Test Commissions International Guidelines on Test Use (Version 2000) the following fair and ethical practices must be adhered to: “1). The appropriate, fair, professional, and ethical use of assessment measures and assessment results taking into account the needs and rights of those involved in the assessment process; 2). Ensuring that the assessment conducted closely matches the purpose to which the assessment result will be put; 3).

Taking into account the broader social, cultural, and political context in which assessment is used and the ways in which such factors might affect assessment results, their interpretation, and the use to which they are put the test is valid for the purposes for which it is being used; 5). Appropriate norms are consulted; 6). Lastly, where tests that have been developed in other countries are concerned, appropriate research studies need to be undertaken to investigate whether the test is culturally biased and special care should be taken when interpreting the results of such tests” (Foxcroft & Roodt, 2001).

From points three and six, it is evident that culture, norms and language hugely determine if a test will prove to be free of bias and is ethically fair. If these variables are not considered, the test is considered inappropriate and biased. This is a serious pitfall for psychological assessment in South Africa. Concluding remarks Ultimately, there are two questions to ask here. The first question is asked by van de Vijver and Rothmann (2004) and that is whether the profession of psychology in South Africa is prepared for the challenge that is implicit in the Equity Act.

According to van de Vijver and Rothmann (2004), “the law is ahead of the daily practice” of psychological assessment and even now no country can live up to the expectations and demands proposed by the Act. To help achieve the propositions of the act, it has become one of the main goals of the assessment profession in South Africa to bring current practice and harmonize it with legal demands of the Equity Act (van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2004).

This can be done by “developing new instruments and validating existing instruments for use in multicultural groups” (van de Vijver & Rothmann, 2004). The second question that is inherent in the argument around historical and current pitfalls is: can the current status of psychological assessment (which is proving less satisfactory than was expected) be attributed to the past racially discriminatory and unethical policies that made up apartheid?

In my opinion, the past always shapes the present and future. Apartheid policies, although abolished have left a great impact on the social and economic structures of the country. According to Claassen (1995); Cooper, Nicholas, Seedat, & Statman (1990); Nell (1997), there is a close relationship between science and the politics of the time and thus it can be concluded that the development of psychological tests during the apartheid era was shaped by the politics and ideologies of the time.

Today, without considering the culture, norms and language of the context in which we live, psychological tests may perpetuate the type of bias experienced by minority groups during the apartheid era. It is important for there to be new developments of psychological tests that take into account the multicultural and multilingual nature of South Africa and turn them into positives, instead of test that are rendered inappropriate and unethical.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Psychological Measures in the Multicultural South African Context. (2016, Nov 23). Retrieved from

Psychological Measures in the Multicultural South African Context essay
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