Psychometric Assessments and the PMP Exam
Karl Cheney

By: Karl Cheney on December 5th, 2018

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Psychometric Assessments and the PMP Exam

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(This is meant to explain psychometrics in broad strokes, as there are plenty of articles that already exist on validity and reliability)

 

PMP Exam candidates are often quite curious about what their exam experience will be like. Common questions include: what is the passing score, how many math questions will I have, and how hard will it be? The short answer to all three of these questions is a very disappointing, “no one knows”. In this article, we will explain why no one knows what your exam will be like. PMI does publish quite a bit about their assessment as part of the ‘exam content outline’, available on their website.

 

What is the passing score?

Traditional academic assessments follow a pretty standard routine: there is a set amount of questions, each one being worth a set amount of points, and a student must meet or exceed a scoring threshold to “pass” the exam. The issue with this is based upon questions being equally difficult, when in reality no two questions are equally difficult. Below is a table with four questions, each with four possible answers – much like you would see on the PMP exam.

 

Question Number

% of exam candidates that selected the answer (Green is correct answer)

A

B

C

D

1

93

7

0

0

2

64

28

8

0

3

68

2

17

13

4

66

13

18

3

 

  • Question #1 is an “overly easy” question: 93% of exam candidates get this question correct. This is likely due to the fact that answers C and D are implausible to the point that no one is fooled by them.
  • Question #2 has an appropriate level of difficult, but answer D is obviously of poor construction as it is implausible to the point that no one selects it.
  • Question #3 has the best representation. Even the distractor answer, B, attracts some attention from exam candidates.
  • Question #4 is “overly hard” as only 13% of exam candidates get this question correct. It is either too purposefully misleading or relies too much on semantics to distract from the correct answer.

In a traditional academic assessment, questions #1 and #4 would have equal weight. How fair is that to the test taker? Some questions are almost freebies while others are almost impossible. PMI determines the relative difficulty of a question by introducing it first as an “experimental” question. While it is experimental, it does not count towards or against the candidate’s final score. This data is gathered until a sufficient sample size has been collected, at which point it a decision is made:

  • If the question looks like #2 or #3 above, it may be introduced as a scored question in the question bank which will allow an older question to be retired
  • If the question looks like #1 or #4 above, it will be discarded as poorly constructed

Prior to gathering data on how these questions do with exam candidates, PMI has no idea how relatively hard or easy the question is. All they can do is check if the question and answer are, by content alone, correct or incorrect. Ultimately, after collecting all of this data, the passing score becomes the average of the 175 questions that are “graded” for passing purposes. After this averaging, each question is worth only one point, regardless of relative difficulty. Yes, the hardest question you see is worth one point, and the easiest question you see is worth one point.

 

How many math questions will I have?

Questions are drawn entirely at random from PMI’s question bank. But how are the questions drawn? Psychometric assessments are based upon specific domains and tasks. The PMP exam has five domains, which mirror and share names with the five process groups of the PMBoK. Within each of these five domains, there are a number of tasks that project managers are expected to be able to do. Task 1 in Domain 4 is “Measure project performance using appropriate tools and techniques in order to identify and quantify any variances and corrective actions.” This is one task of 7 in Domain 4, which is 25% of the exam.

 

If we calculate one-seventh of this domain, which is 25% of 200 questions, we arrive at seven questions. Some people are content to say, “okay, seven questions. That’s how many I will have.” It’s not that easy, though, as there are a number of cross-cutting knowledge and skills listed as part of Domain 4 as well which can decrease the number of questions for Task 1. Furthermore, questions can be associated with Task 1 without requiring mathematical calculations. To make matters worse, there may be math questions that are not directly associated with this Task but have been tied to cross-cutting knowledge and skills. So how many math questions? There’s no way to know, but I’d say realistically no more than ten.

 

How hard will it be?

Much like the first question about passing score, it is impossible to tell you how hard the test will be. But as stated in determining the unique passing score for each exam, the passing score will be relative to the difficulty of the questions that you have drawn at random. If you have an overabundance of easy questions, your passing score will be higher, while a lot of very hard questions means that you will have a lower passing score. For this reason, we can say that everyone has the same relative difficulty on their exams. No one receives an unfair advantage for having received primarily hard or easy questions.

 

Preparing for a psychometric assessment can be a demanding process. It’s not something that you would want to have to repeat if you don’t have to. Contact Project Management Academy for any questions on how to pass the PMP the first time.

About Karl Cheney

Content Expert at Project Management Academy