Public Service Commission approval of psychological tests

The Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Appointment Policy includes the following policy requirement:

9. Obtain the PSC’s approval prior to using psychological tests of intelligence, personality, integrity and aptitude tests and tests of mental health.

What kind of tests require PSC approval?

The kinds of tests mentioned in the Policy Requirement are all considered psychological tests. PSC approval must be obtained prior to using such tests in an appointment process conducted under the Public Service Employment Act.

What is unique about these kinds of tests?

Instead of assessing job-specific skills, these tests generally assess underlying psychological traits. They are often made up of questions that, on the surface, may appear unrelated to the specific tasks performed on the job. For example:

  • tests of general mental ability or intelligence generally include different question types that require both verbal and non-verbal skills;
  • personality and integrity tests assess underlying personality traits (e.g., extroversion, conscientiousness) associated with certain patterns of thinking, feeling, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours;
  • aptitude tests typically assess the ability to learn or acquire proficiency in specific skills such as mechanical reasoning or psychomotor skills;
  • tests of mental health typically assess psychological, emotional or social well-being and can assist with identification of clinical conditions such as psychopathy.

Creating a psychological test that respects relevant professional standards requires special expertise in the relevant psychological principles as well as in test development and psychometrics. Specialized expertise may also be necessary to use and to interpret the results of these tests or even to make sound decisions when purchasing commercially available tests.

In contrast, tests that directly assess job-specific skills or competencies (such as verifying data, planning and organizing, written communication, etc.) can be developed by hiring managers, based on their knowledge of the job’s technical requirements, without expertise in psychology or the development of psychometric tests. In fact, they are in the best position to do this.

If there is doubt about whether a test requires PSC approval, it is always best to consult with the Personnel Psychology Centre before using the test in an appointment process.

When is approval required?

PSC approval is required before any test of intelligence, personality, integrity and aptitude or test of mental health is used in an appointment process, regardless of the origin of the test.

Approval is required when such tests are used for the purpose of assessment at any point in an appointment process.

PSC approval is not required to use psychological tests to assess conditions of employment such as medical suitability.

Why is PSC approval required?

Psychological tests can reveal particularly sensitive personal information about candidates that will not be relevant in all job contexts or may require expert interpretation.

As already mentioned, developing and evaluating the kinds of tests referenced in the PSC policy calls for specialized expertise. Using the results of psychological tests that have not been properly developed, applied or interpreted may be contrary to merit, could be harmful from a human rights or employment equity perspective and could even result in psychological harm to those being assessed.

Professionally developed tests should adhere to internationally recognized standards, including the “Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing” published by the American Psychological Association (APA) and its partners in the educational domain. These standards are endorsed by the Canadian Psychological Association. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s “Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures” are intended to complement the APA standards. Within the federal public service, Testing in the Public Service of Canada is the benchmark for all standardized tests.

While there are many commercially available psychological tests, their quality varies greatly and they may not always conform to professional standards. PSC approval is required prior to using such tests for staffing purposes to ensure that the relevant standards are met and that the tests are used appropriately in the appointment process.

The approval process

The purpose of the approval process is to help managers meet their staffing needs by 1) providing for valid, reliable, fair assessment 2) without doing harm, and 3) that is defensible in the face of staffing complaints. The process is flexible and meant to support managers in achieving their assessment goals.

Approval is based on the application of the recognized professional standards mentioned earlier. This includes, but is not limited to, Testing in the Public Service of Canada which sets out basic standards for the development of standardized tests to be used for staffing in the federal public service.

The process for seeking and obtaining approval to use a test involves the following steps:

  1. Initial consultation with a PSC assessment specialist and a review of the client’s needs is recommended before the formal request is made. In some cases, it may be determined that the use of the test in question does not require the PSC’s approval.

  2. Collection of documentation. The following will typically be needed for approval:

    • the merit criteria for the appointment process in which the test will be used (identifying those to be assessed by the proposed test).
    • the work description.
    • general information about the test, including (but not limited to), what it is intended to assess, a description of the test format and information on how the test will be scored and by whom;
    • technical documentation;

      • usually this in the form of a technical manual or report. A complete technical manual will describe, among other things, the test specifications and evidence in support of test validity, reliability, fairness and employment equity considerations;
      • it would also include information about accessibility of the test format and describe universal test design (or similar) principles applied in order to remove barriers to fair assessment at the design stage.
    • a copy of the test (or access to the full version of an online test) in both official languages.
    • the test will normally need to be available in both English and French forms, accompanied by any available evidence regarding their equivalence.
    • other relevant information, such as information about test security, privacy and the availability of qualified personnel to interpret results.

  3. Review of test and related materials. This can be a straightforward process or it can involve a series of exchanges between the PSC, the requesting organization and/or the test publisher.

  4. Decision: There are 3 possible outcomes to the approval process.

    The request is approved. The Personnel Psychology Centre issues an approval letter listing the basic conditions under which approval was granted.

    The request is approved with conditions. There are cases where additional conditions may be added, such as collecting data to monitor the test’s performance. Any additional conditions will be set out in the approval letter.

    The request is not approved. There are various reasons why a request may not be approved. Assuming that the test is properly documented and meets basic professional standards, some of the common reasons we may be unable to approve a request (or why a request might be abandoned) are:

    • the test is not available in both official languages or the equivalence of the French and English versions has not been established;
    • the link between what the test assesses and the merit criteria being evaluated is inadequate or insufficiently articulated. There must be a clear link between qualifications established for the appointment process and constructs assessed by the test;
    • There are accessibility issues or barriers built into the test format or the construct being assessed. Insufficient consideration has been given to accessibility principles and how to accommodate candidates;
    • There are security concerns around the protected content of the test or the personal information collected;
    • There are privacy concerns regarding the collection, use, or disclosure of the sensitive personal information collected in the testing process. This is particularly important for online testing, especially for commercial tests operated by companies outside of Canada.


To avoid unnecessary delays in obtaining approval, ensure that the necessary documentation is available before making a request for approval. Delays in obtaining approval are usually related to the time it takes to provide the documentation needed.

When considering the use of any psychological test in an appointment process, the information presented here may help you to determine what to ask the vendor or test developer at the outset. This will allow you to recognize whether approval will be unlikely or time-consuming to obtain. The common pitfalls listed above are a good place to start.

For more information or to initiate the approval process

Contact the Personnel Psychology Centre.

Telephone: (819) 420-8671


Did you know?

The term “psychometric” is often used in employment, health care and educational testing settings. It is essentially just an abbreviation of the words “psychological measurement.”

Psychometric tests have known measurement properties. That means the test has been thoroughly pre-tested and researched so that important statistical properties of the test as a whole as well as each “item” (question) in the test are known, documented and found to be appropriate.

At the test level, this can include different measures of the reliability, validity and fairness of the test as a whole. At the item level it can include estimates of item difficulty, the attractiveness of different response options, the relationship between success on the item and success on the overall test and item-level measures of fairness.

Psychometric tests should have well-established norms that allow test users to draw meaningful inferences from given test scores. As an example, getting a score on a test of 60% may provide some useful information. But knowing that only 20% of individuals in the appropriate reference population will obtain a score that high provides much more useful information.

While the term “psychometric” is often associated with the kinds of psychological tests that require PSC approval, it can also apply to other kinds of tests that do not require PSC approval, if they are developed according to the relevant standards. These could include standardized knowledge tests or tests of certain skills such as office skills or managerial ability. 

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