Uncovering the root cause of ethnic differences in ability testing
: differential test functioning, test familiarity and trait optimism as explanations of ethnic group differences

  • Daniel Hinton

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The present research represents a coherent approach to understanding the root causes of ethnic group differences in ability test performance. Two studies were conducted, each of which was designed to address a key knowledge gap in the ethnic bias literature. In Study 1, both the LR Method of Differential Item Functioning (DIF) detection and Mixture Latent Variable Modelling were used to investigate the degree to which Differential Test Functioning (DTF) could explain ethnic group test performance differences in a large, previously unpublished dataset. Though mean test score differences were observed between a number of ethnic groups, neither technique was able to identify ethnic DTF. This calls into question the practical application of DTF to understanding these group differences. Study 2 investigated whether a number of non-cognitive factors might explain ethnic group test performance differences on a variety of ability tests. Two factors – test familiarity and trait optimism – were able to explain a large proportion of ethnic group test score differences. Furthermore, test familiarity was found to mediate the relationship between socio-economic factors – particularly participant educational level and familial social status – and test performance, suggesting that test familiarity develops over time through the mechanism of exposure to ability testing in other contexts. These findings represent a substantial contribution to the field’s understanding of two key issues surrounding ethnic test performance differences. The author calls for a new line of research into these performance facilitating and debilitating factors, before recommendations are offered for practitioners to ensure fairer deployment of ability testing in high-stakes selection processes.
Date of Award1 Oct 2015
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorYves R Guillaume (Supervisor) & Stephen A Woods (Supervisor)


  • Differential Item Functioning
  • Race
  • Bias
  • mixture modelling
  • test familiarity

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