The Concept of Validity

Modules Chapter 6 Week 2 p655

C H A P T E R  6


In everyday language we say that something is valid if it is sound, meaningful, or well grounded on principles or evidence. For example, we speak of a valid theory, a valid argument, or a valid reason. In legal terminology, lawyers say that something is valid if it is “executed with the proper formalities” (Black, 1979), such as a valid contract and a valid will. In each of these instances, people make judgments based on evidence of the meaningfulness or the veracity of something. Similarly, in the language of psychological assessment, validity is a term used in conjunction with the meaningfulness of a test score—what the test score truly means.

The Concept of Validity

Validity , as applied to a test, is a judgment or estimate of how well a test measures what it purports to measure in a particular context. More specifically, it is a judgment based on evidence about the appropriateness of inferences drawn from test scores.1 An  inference  is a logical result or deduction. Characterizations of the validity of tests and test scores are frequently phrased in terms such as “acceptable” or “weak.” These terms reflect a judgment about how adequately the test measures what it purports to measure.

Inherent in a judgment of an instrument’s validity is a judgment of how useful the instrument is for a particular purpose with a particular population of people. As a shorthand, assessors may refer to a particular test as a “valid test.” However, what is really meant is that the test has been shown to be valid for a particular use with a particular population of testtakers at a particular time. No test or measurement technique is “universally valid” for all time, for all uses, with all types of testtaker populations. Rather, tests may be shown to be valid within what we would characterize as reasonable boundaries of a contemplated usage. If those boundaries are exceeded, the validity of the test may be called into question. Further, to the extent that the validity of a test may diminish as the culture or the times change, the validity of a test may have to be re-established with the same as well as other testtaker populations.Page 176


Why is the phrase valid test sometimes misleading?

Validation  is the process of gathering and evaluating evidence about validity. Both the test developer and the test user may play a role in the validation of a test for a specific purpose. It is the test developer’s responsibility to supply validity evidence in the test manual. It may sometimes be appropriate for test users to conduct their own  validation studies  with their own groups of testtakers. Such local validation studies may yield insights regarding a particular population of testtakers as compared to the norming sample described in a test manual.  Local validation studies  are absolutely necessary when the test user plans to alter in some way the format, instructions, language, or content of the test. For example, a local validation study would be necessary if the test user sought to transform a nationally standardized test into Braille for administration to blind and visually impaired testtakers. Local validation studies would also be necessary if a test user sought to use a test with a population of testtakers that differed in some significant way from the population on which the test was standardized.


Local validation studies require professional time and know-how, and they may be costly. For these reasons, they might not be done even if they are desirable or necessary. What would you recommend to a test user who is in no position to conduct such a local validation study but who nonetheless is contemplating the use of a test that requires one?

One way measurement specialists have traditionally conceptualized validity is according to three categories:

1. Content validity. This is a measure of validity based on an evaluation of the subjects, topics, or content covered by the items in the test.

2. Criterion-related validity. This is a measure of validity obtained by evaluating the relationship of scores obtained on the test to scores on other tests or measures

3. Construct validity. This is a measure of validity that is arrived at by executing a comprehensive analysis of

a. how scores on the test relate to other test scores and measures, and

b. how scores on the test can be understood within some theoretical framework for understanding the construct that the test was designed to measure.

In this classic conception of validity, referred to as the trinitarian view (Guion, 1980), it might be useful to visualize construct validity as being “umbrella validity” because every other variety of validity falls under it. Why construct validity is the overriding variety of validity will become clear as we discuss what makes a test valid and the methods and procedures used in validation. Indeed, there are many ways of approaching the process of test validation, and these different plans of attack are often referred to as strategies. We speak, for example, of content validation strategies, criterion-related validation strategies, and construct validation strategies.

Trinitarian approaches to validity assessment are not mutually exclusive. That is, each of the three conceptions of validity provides evidence that, with other evidence, contributes to a judgment concerning the validity of a test. Stated another way, all three types of validity evidence contribute to a unified picture of a test’s validity. A test user may not need to know about all three. Depending on the use to which a test is being put, one type of validity evidence may be more relevant than another.

The trinitarian model of validity is not without its critics (Landy, 1986). Messick (1995), for example, condemned this approach as fragmented and incomplete. He called for a unitary view of validity, one that takes into account everything from the implications of test scores in terms of societal values to the consequences of test use. However, even in the so-called unitary view, different elements of validity may come to the fore for scrutiny, and so an understanding of those elements in isolation is necessary.

In this chapter we discuss content validity, criterion-related validity, and construct validity; three now-classic approaches to judging whether a test measures what it purports to measure. Page 177Let’s note at the outset that, although the trinitarian model focuses on three types of validity, you are likely to come across other varieties of validity in your readings. For example, you are likely to come across the term ecological validity. You may recall from Chapter 1 that the term ecological momentary assessment (EMA) refers to the in-the-moment and in-the-place evaluation of targeted variables (such as behaviors, cognitions, and emotions) in a natural, naturalistic, or real-life context. In a somewhat similar vein, the term  ecological validity  refers to a judgment regarding how well a test measures what it purports to measure at the time and place that the variable being measured (typically a behavior, cognition, or emotion) is actually emitted. In essence, the greater the ecological validity of a test or other measurement procedure, the greater the generalizability of the measurement results to particular real-life circumstances.

Part of the appeal of EMA is that it does not have the limitations of retrospective self-report. Studies of the ecological validity of many tests or other assessment procedures are conducted in a natural (or naturalistic) environment, which is identical or similar to the environment in which a targeted behavior or other variable might naturally occur (see, for example, Courvoisier et al., 2012; Lewinski et al., 2014; Lo et al., 2015). However, in some cases, owing to the nature of the particular variable under study, such research may be retrospective in nature (see, for example, the 2014 Weems et al. study of memory for traumatic events).

Other validity-related terms that you will come across in the psychology literature are predictive validity and concurrent validity. We discuss these terms later in this chapter in the context of criterion-related validity. Yet another term you may come across is face validity (see Figure 6–1). In fact, you will come across that term right now . . .

Figure 6–1  Face Validity and Comedian Rodney Dangerfield  Rodney Dangerfield (1921–2004) was famous for complaining, “I don’t get no respect.” Somewhat analogously, the concept of face validity has been described as the “Rodney Dangerfield of psychometric variables” because it has “received little attention—and even less respect—from researchers examining the construct validity of psychological tests and measures” (Bornstein et al., 1994, p. 363). By the way, the tombstone of this beloved stand-up comic and film actor reads: “Rodney Dangerfield . . . There goes the neighborhood.”© Arthur Schatz/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

Face Validity

Face validity  relates more to what a test appears to measure to the person being tested than to what the test actually measures. Face validity is a judgment concerning how relevant the Page 178test items appear to be. Stated another way, if a test definitely appears to measure what it purports to measure “on the face of it,” then it could be said to be high in face validity. A paper-and-pencil personality test labeled The Introversion/Extraversion Test, with items that ask respondents whether they have acted in an introverted or an extraverted way in particular situations, may be perceived by respondents as a highly face-valid test. On the other hand, a personality test in which respondents are asked to report what they see in inkblots may be perceived as a test with low face validity. Many respondents would be left wondering how what they said they saw in the inkblots really had anything at all to do with personality.

In contrast to judgments about the reliability of a test and judgments about the content, construct, or criterion-related validity of a test, judgments about face validity are frequently thought of from the perspective of the testtaker, not the test user. A test’s lack of face validity could contribute to a lack of confidence in the perceived effectiveness of the test—with a consequential decrease in the testtaker’s cooperation or motivation to do his or her best. In a corporate environment, lack of face validity may lead to unwillingness of administrators or managers to “buy-in” to the use of a particular test (see this chapter’s  Meet an Assessment Professional ). In a similar vein, parents may object to having their children tested with instruments that lack ostensible validity. Such concern might stem from a belief that the use of such tests will result in invalid conclusions.


Meet Dr. Adam Shoemaker

In the “real world,” tests require buy-in from test administrators and candidates. While the reliability and validity of the test are always of primary importance, the test process can be short-circuited by administrators who don’t know how to use the test or who don’t have a good understanding of test theory. So at least half the battle of implementing a new testing tool is to make sure administrators know how to use it, accept the way that it works, and feel comfortable that it is tapping the skills and abilities necessary for the candidate to do the job.

Here’s an example: Early in my company’s history of using online assessments, we piloted a test that had acceptable reliability and criterion validity. We saw some strongly significant correlations between scores on the test and objective performance numbers, suggesting that this test did a good job of distinguishing between high and low performers on the job. The test proved to be unbiased and showed no demonstrable adverse impact against minority groups. However, very few test administrators felt comfortable using the assessment because most people felt that the skills that it tapped were not closely related to the skills needed for the job. Legally, ethically, and statistically, we were on firm ground, but we could never fully achieve “buy-in” from the people who had to administer the test.

On the other hand, we also piloted a test that showed very little criterion validity at all. There were no significant correlations between scores on the test and performance outcomes; the test was unable to distinguish between a high and a low performer. Still . . . the test administrators loved this test because it “looked” so much like the job. That is, it had high face validity and tapped skills that seemed to be precisely the kinds of skills that were needed on the job. From a legal, ethical, and statistical perspective, we knew we could not use this test to select employees, but we continued to use it to provide a “realistic job preview” to candidates. That way, the test continued to work for us in really showing candidates that this was the kind of thing they would be doing all day at work. More than a few times, candidates voluntarily withdrew from the process because they had a better understanding of what the job involved long before they even sat down at a desk.

Adam Shoemaker, Ph.D., Human Resources Consultant for Talent Acquisition, Tampa, Florida © Adam Shoemaker

The moral of this story is that as scientists, we have to remember that reliability and validity are super important in the development and implementation of a test . . . but as human beings, we have to remember that the test we end up using must also be easy to use and appear face valid for both the candidate and the administrator.

Read more of what Dr. Shoemaker had to say—his complete essay—through the Instructor Resources within Connect.

Used with permission of Adam Shoemaker.


What is the value of face validity from the perspective of the test user?

In reality, a test that lacks face validity may still be relevant and useful. However, if the test is not perceived as relevant and useful by testtakers, parents, legislators, and others, then negative consequences may result. These consequences may range from poor testtaker attitude to lawsuits filed by disgruntled parties against a test user and test publisher. Ultimately, face validity may be more a matter of public relations than psychometric soundness. Still, it is important nonetheless, and (much like Rodney Dangerfield) deserving of respect.

Content Validity

Content validity  describes a judgment of how adequately a test samples behavior representative of the universe of behavior that the test was designed to sample. For example, the universe of behavior referred to as assertive is very wide-ranging. A content-valid, paper-and-pencil test of assertiveness would be one that is adequately representative of this wide range. We might expect that such a test would contain items sampling from hypothetical situations at home (such as whether the respondent has difficulty in making her or his views known to fellow family members), on the job (such as whether the respondent has difficulty in asking subordinates to do what is required of them), and in social situations (such as whether the respondent would send back a steak not done to order in a fancy restaurant). Ideally, test developers have a clear (as opposed to “fuzzy”) vision of the construct being measured, and the clarity of this vision can be reflected in the content validity of the test (Haynes et al., 1995). In the interest of ensuring content validity, test developers strive to include key components of the construct targeted for measurement, and exclude content irrelevant to the construct targeted for measurement.

With respect to educational achievement tests, it is customary to consider a test a content-valid measure when the proportion of material covered by the test approximates the proportion of material covered in the course. A cumulative final exam in introductory statistics would be considered content-valid if the proportion and type of introductory statistics problems on the test approximates the proportion and type of introductory statistics problems presented in the course.

The early stages of a test being developed for use in the classroom—be it one classroom or those throughout the state or the nation—typically entail research exploring the universe of possible instructional objectives for the course. Included among the many possible sources of information on such objectives are course syllabi, course textbooks, teachers of the course, specialists who Page 180develop curricula, and professors and supervisors who train teachers in the particular subject area. From the pooled information (along with the judgment of the test developer), there emerges a  test blueprint  for the “structure” of the evaluation—that is, a plan regarding the types of information to be covered by the items, the number of items tapping each area of coverage, the organization of the items in the test, and so forth (see Figure 6–2). In many instances the test blueprint represents the culmination of efforts to adequately sample the universe of content areas that conceivably could be sampled in such a test.2

Figure 6–2  Building a Test from a Test Blueprint  An architect’s blueprint usually takes the form of a technical drawing or diagram of a structure, sometimes written in white lines on a blue background. The blueprint may be thought of as a plan of a structure, typically detailed enough so that the structure could actually be constructed from it. Somewhat comparable to the architect’s blueprint is the test blueprint of a test developer. Seldom, if ever, on a blue background and written in white, it is nonetheless a detailed plan of the content, organization, and quantity of the items that a test will contain—sometimes complete with “weightings” of the content to be covered (He, 2011; Spray & Huang, 2000; Sykes & Hou, 2003). A test administered on a regular basis may require “item-pool management” to manage the creation of new items and the output of old items in a manner that is consistent with the test’s blueprint (Ariel et al., 2006; van der Linden et al., 2000).© John Rowley/Getty Images RF


A test developer is working on a brief screening instrument designed to predict student success in a psychological testing and assessment course. You are the consultant called upon to blueprint the content areas covered. Your recommendations?

For an employment test to be content-valid, its content must be a representative sample of the job-related skills required for employment. Behavioral observation is one technique frequently used in blueprinting the content areas to be covered in certain types of employment tests. The test developer will observe successful veterans on that job, note the behaviors necessary for success on the job, and design the test to include a representative Page 181sample of those behaviors. Those same workers (as well as their supervisors and others) may subsequently be called on to act as experts or judges in rating the degree to which the content of the test is a representative sample of the required job-related skills. At that point, the test developer will want to know about the extent to which the experts or judges agree. A description of one such method for quantifying the degree of agreement between such raters can be found “online only” through the Instructor Resources within Connect (refer to OOBAL-6-B2).

Culture and the relativity of content validity

Tests are often thought of as either valid or not valid. A history test, for example, either does or does not accurately measure one’s knowledge of historical fact. However, it is also true that what constitutes historical fact depends to some extent on who is writing the history. Consider, for example, a momentous event in the history of the world, one that served as a catalyst for World War I. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, by a Serb named Gavrilo Princip (Figure 6–3). Now think about how you would answer the following multiple-choice item on a history test:

Figure 6–3  Cultural Relativity, History, and Test Validity  Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, are pictured (left) as they left Sarajevo’s City Hall on June 28, 1914. Moments later, Ferdinand would be assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, shown in custody at right. The killing served as a catalyst for World War I and is discussed and analyzed in history textbooks in every language around the world. Yet descriptions of the assassin Princip in those textbooks—and ability test items based on those descriptions—vary as a function of culture.© Ingram Publishing RF

Gavrilo Princip was

a. a poet

b. a hero

c. a terrorist

d. a nationalist

e. all of the above

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For various textbooks in the Bosnian region of the world, choice “e”—that’s right, “all of the above”—is the “correct” answer. Hedges (1997) observed that textbooks in areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina that were controlled by different ethnic groups imparted widely varying characterizations of the assassin. In the Serb-controlled region of the country, history textbooks—and presumably the tests constructed to measure students’ learning—regarded Princip as a “hero and poet.” By contrast, Croatian students might read that Princip was an assassin trained to commit a terrorist act. Muslims in the region were taught that Princip was a nationalist whose deed sparked anti-Serbian rioting.


The passage of time sometimes serves to place historical figures in a different light. How might the textbook descriptions of Gavrilo Princip have changed in these regions?

A history test considered valid in one classroom, at one time, and in one place will not necessarily be considered so in another classroom, at another time, and in another place. Consider a test containing the true-false item, “Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is a hero.” Such an item is useful in illustrating the cultural relativity affecting item scoring. In 1944, von Stauffenberg, a German officer, was an active participant in a bomb plot to assassinate Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler. When the plot (popularized in the film, Operation Valkyrie) failed, von Stauffenberg was executed and promptly villified in Germany as a despicable traitor. Today, the light of history shines favorably on von Stauffenberg, and he is perceived as a hero in Germany. A German postage stamp with his face on it was issued to honor von Stauffenberg’s 100th birthday.

Politics is another factor that may well play a part in perceptions and judgments concerning the validity of tests and test items. In many countries throughout the world, a response that is keyed incorrect to a particular test item can lead to consequences far more dire than a deduction in points towards the total test score. Sometimes, even constructing a test with a reference to a taboo topic can have dire consequences for the test developer. For example, one Palestinian professor who included items pertaining to governmental corruption on an examination was tortured by authorities as a result (“Brother Against Brother,” 1997). Such scenarios bring new meaning to the term politically correct as it applies to tests, test items, and testtaker responses.


Commercial test developers who publish widely used history tests must maintain the content validity of their tests. What challenges do they face in doing so?

Criterion-Related Validity

Criterion-related validity  is a judgment of how adequately a test score can be used to infer an individual’s most probable standing on some measure of interest—the measure of interest being the criterion. Two types of validity evidence are subsumed under the heading criterion-related validity.  Concurrent validity  is an index of the degree to which a test score is related to some criterion measure obtained at the same time (concurrently).  Predictive validity  is an index of the degree to which a test score predicts some criterion measure. Before we discuss each of these types of validity evidence in detail, it seems appropriate to raise (and answer) an important question.

What Is a Criterion?

We were first introduced to the concept of a criterion in Chapter 4, where, in the context of defining criterion-referenced assessment, we defined a criterion broadly as a standard on which a judgment or decision may be based. Here, in the context of our discussion of criterion-related validity, we will define a  criterion  just a bit more narrowly as the standard against which a test Page 183or a test score is evaluated. So, for example, if a test purports to measure the trait of athleticism, we might expect to employ “membership in a health club” or any generally accepted measure of physical fitness as a criterion in evaluating whether the athleticism test truly measures athleticism. Operationally, a criterion can be most anything: pilot performance in flying a Boeing 767, grade on examination in Advanced Hairweaving, number of days spent in psychiatric hospitalization; the list is endless. There are no hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes a criterion. It can be a test score, a specific behavior or group of behaviors, an amount of time, a rating, a psychiatric diagnosis, a training cost, an index of absenteeism, an index of alcohol intoxication, and so on. Whatever the criterion, ideally it is relevant, valid, and uncontaminated. Let’s explain.

Characteristics of a criterion

An adequate criterion is relevant. By this we mean that it is pertinent or applicable to the matter at hand. We would expect, for example, that a test purporting to advise testtakers whether they share the same interests of successful actors to have been validated using the interests of successful actors as a criterion.

An adequate criterion measure must also be valid for the purpose for which it is being used. If one test (X) is being used as the criterion to validate a second test (Y), then evidence should exist that test X is valid. If the criterion used is a rating made by a judge or a panel, then evidence should exist that the rating is valid. Suppose, for example, that a test purporting to measure depression is said to have been validated using as a criterion the diagnoses made by a blue-ribbon panel of psychodiagnosticians. A test user might wish to probe further regarding variables such as the credentials of the “blue-ribbon panel” (or, their educational background, training, and experience) and the actual procedures used to validate a diagnosis of depression. Answers to such questions would help address the issue of whether the criterion (in this case, the diagnoses made by panel members) was indeed valid.

Ideally, a criterion is also uncontaminated.  Criterion contamination  is the term applied to a criterion measure that has been based, at least in part, on predictor measures. As an example, consider a hypothetical “Inmate Violence Potential Test” (IVPT) designed to predict a prisoner’s potential for violence in the cell block. In part, this evaluation entails ratings from fellow inmates, guards, and other staff in order to come up with a number that represents each inmate’s violence potential. After all of the inmates in the study have been given scores on this test, the study authors then attempt to validate the test by asking guards to rate each inmate on their violence potential. Because the guards’ opinions were used to formulate the inmate’s test score in the first place (the predictor variable), the guards’ opinions cannot be used as a criterion against which to judge the soundness of the test. If the guards’ opinions were used both as a predictor and as a criterion, then we would say that criterion contamination had occurred.

Here is another example of criterion contamination. Suppose that a team of researchers from a company called Ventura International Psychiatric Research (VIPR) just completed a study of how accurately a test called the MMPI-2-RF predicted psychiatric diagnosis in the psychiatric population of the Minnesota state hospital system. As we will see in Chapter 12, the MMPI-2-RF is, in fact, a widely used test. In this study, the predictor is the MMPI-2-RF, and the criterion is the psychiatric diagnosis that exists in the patient’s record. Further, let’s suppose that while all the data are being analyzed at VIPR headquarters, someone informs these researchers that the diagnosis for every patient in the Minnesota state hospital system was determined, at least in part, by an MMPI-2-RF test score. Should they still proceed with their analysis? The answer is no. Because the predictor measure has contaminated the criterion measure, it would be of little value to find, in essence, that the predictor can indeed predict itself.

When criterion contamination does occur, the results of the validation study cannot be taken seriously. There are no methods or statistics to gauge the extent to which criterion contamination has taken place, and there are no methods or statistics to correct for such contamination.

Now, let’s take a closer look at concurrent validity and predictive validity.Page 184

Concurrent Validity

If test scores are obtained at about the same time as the criterion measures are obtained, measures of the relationship between the test scores and the criterion provide evidence of concurrent validity. Statements of concurrent validity indicate the extent to which test scores may be used to estimate an individual’s present standing on a criterion. If, for example, scores (or classifications) made on the basis of a psychodiagnostic test were to be validated against a criterion of already diagnosed psychiatric patients, then the process would be one of concurrent validation. In general, once the validity of the inference from the test scores is established, the test may provide a faster, less expensive way to offer a diagnosis or a classification decision. A test with satisfactorily demonstrated concurrent validity may therefore be appealing to prospective users because it holds out the potential of savings of money and professional time.

Sometimes the concurrent validity of a particular test (let’s call it Test A) is explored with respect to another test (we’ll call Test B). In such studies, prior research has satisfactorily demonstrated the validity of Test B, so the question becomes: “How well does Test A compare with Test B?” Here, Test B is used as the validating criterion. In some studies, Test A is either a brand-new test or a test being used for some new purpose, perhaps with a new population.

Here is a real-life example of a concurrent validity study in which a group of researchers explored whether a test validated for use with adults could be used with adolescents. The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck et al., 1961, 1979; Beck & Steer, 1993) and its revision, the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II; Beck et al., 1996) are self-report measures used to identify symptoms of depression and quantify their severity. Although the BDI had been widely used with adults, questions were raised regarding its appropriateness for use with adolescents. Ambrosini et al. (1991) conducted a concurrent validity study to explore the utility of the BDI with adolescents. They also sought to determine if the test could successfully differentiate patients with depression from those without depression in a population of adolescent outpatients. Diagnoses generated from the concurrent administration of an instrument previously validated for use with adolescents were used as the criterion validators. The findings suggested that the BDI is valid for use with adolescents.


What else might these researchers have done to explore the utility of the BDI with adolescents?

We now turn our attention to another form of criterion validity, one in which the criterion measure is obtained not concurrently but at some future time.

Predictive Validity

Test scores may be obtained at one time and the criterion measures obtained at a future time, usually after some intervening event has taken place. The intervening event may take varied forms, such as training, experience, therapy, medication, or simply the passage

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