French-Language Assessment Methods

Pierre Vrignaud. The International Handbook of Psychology. Editor: Kurt Pawlik & Mark R Rosenzweig. Sage Publications. 2000.

Most of the original assessment methods found in psychology are used in France with varying frequency depending on the specific professional field. In this brief synopsis of French-language methods, we do not talk in detail about the methods that have not given rise to unique developments in France, rather we insist on specific techniques, particularly in the domain of objective tests. After a general account of the history and the current situation of the tests in France, we consider the prevalent instruments existing according to the three fields of psychological evaluation: cognitive, personality, and vocational. We conclude with the presentation of a distinctive method existing in France: le bilan de compétence (the competence assessment procedure).

For each topic we give some general references allowing to explore the topic more extensively. It is always difficult in such an overview to make a choice between references in a field so rich in research and practice. We have made our choice on the basis of at least one of these three criteria: (1) offers a wide coverage of the domain (other useful references are often cited in this one); (2) presents a historical or exemplar character; (3) has been recently published. We are conscious of being unfair while discarding some very valuable publications and we hope that their authors will excuse us by understanding the difficulty of such a task.

Brief History

France has a reputation for being responsible for a major contribution to the psychological tests developed subsequent to the work of Binet and Simon (1905). In the period that followed different laboratories were established in charge of elaborating techniques and processes of selection and methods for career guidance. The work of Lahy involving the selection of tram drivers provides a good example. In the French-speaking countries, the vocational psychology field was initiated by the Belgian psychologists Christiaens and Decroly in 1908 and the educational psychology field by the Swiss psychologists Claparéde and Bovet who founded an institute in Geneva in 1912. In 1928 the psychologist, Henri Pieron created the National Institute of Career guidance (l’nstitut National d’rientation Professionnelle or INETOP) which has been responsible for a large quantity of research on tests. It is perhaps important to underline the unique application and position of the French psychologists regarding these tests which were, at the time, perceived as veritable instruments of social progress. In fact the purpose of these tests in the field of education and career guidance was to allow a more objective evaluation and thus to favor equal opportunities as regards access to training and to careers, heedless of social origin. On the other hand, opinions contrary to these were largely diffused following the events of May 1968 and led to a decline in the use of the tests which were consequently rejected by a large number of psychologists who considered them to be too heavily influenced socially. However a marked renewed interest in these tests can be observed in the 1980s due to the setting up of various structures concerned with assisting professional integration of unemployed people—in particular young people with few qualifications (see Blanchard, Francequin-Chartier, Stassinet, & Vrignaud, 1991).

The Present Situation

Several recent surveys (see for example Bruchon-Schweitzer & Ferrieux, 1991 in the professional psychology field; Castro, Meljac, & Joubert, 1996 in the clinical psychology field) have shown that the use of tests by psychologists is common in all fields of evaluation. However, it is important to point out that few of these tests are mentioned often (for example, only the Wechsler scales and the projective tests appear to be used frequently by clinicians). Nevertheless it is possible to appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of French psychometrics when reading extracts from the international conference, ‘Psychological evaluation of people’ organized by INETOP and a French test publisher (Editions et Applications Psychologiques; EAP) which includes more than 300 papers (Huteau, 1994). Several French journals regularly publish articles on tests and evaluations, for example: Psychologie et Psychométrie, European Review of Applied Psychology, and L’rientation Scolaire et Professionnelle. Two test publishers are offering a wide choice of tests and questionnaires (original French tools or adaptation of famous international tools): Les Etablissements et Applications Psychologiques (founded in 1928) and Les Editions du Centre de Psychologie Appliqué e (founded in 1949).

In regard to ethics, the French Society of Psychology (la Société Française de Psychologie: SFP) has recently published a code of deontology specifying the psychologist’ need to use validated methods. The SFP is also a member of the International Commission of Tests. (Note also that the French-speaking countries are at the origin of the international movement on tests and test use, first by the creation of Association internationale de psychotechnique in Geneva, and more recently through the impulsion of J. Cardinet and others who founded the International Test Commission, as mentioned by J. Grégoire, 1999; see also this reference for a wide survey of test practice in French-speaking countries.)

The Cognitive Sphere

This section relies heavily for the past and present situations on Huteau and Lautrey (1999a) and for the future situation on Vrignaud (1996).

Intelligence Scale Perspectives

Returning now to the area of intelligence scales, let us recall that the second version of the scale, which was published in 1908, differed a lot from the first one: two-thirds of the items were new. A third version (1911) was published while Binet was still alive. It was only in 1949 that new norms were published for the Binet—Simon test and in 1966 that a revised version was constructed by Zazzo, Gilly, and Verba-Rad (Nouvelle Echelle Métrique de l’ntelligence). It was not until the 1960s that we saw the renewed use of Binet’ test in France through the adaptation of Terman-Merril by INETOP. Currently, the most recent versions of the Wechsler scales have been subjected to an adaptation in France (Grégoire, 1992). Kaufman’ K-ABC has also been adapted to suit the French-speaking country cultures. However it should be noted that for reasons of habit and more importantly motives linked to legislation (the admission in specialised education is determined by the IQ in the WISC test) the frequency of use of the Wechsler scales are largely superior of that of all the other scales.

Many of the principal tests of reasoning have been adapted for use in France: Spearman, PM38 and D48 for example. The adaptations of the General Aptitude Tests Battery (CATB) have met with little success and some have now become obsolete. On the other hand a group of tests covering the different factors of the GATB constructed by R. Bonnardel in the 1960s are widely used. The factorial series of tests have been perfected/adapted for larger surveys concerning the intellectual level of French youth (Echelle Collective de Niveau Intellectuel). In addition we can also quote here the factorial series of tests coming from the Research Department of INETOP (see Bacher & Nguyen Xuan, 1967; Richard, 1996).

Piagetian Perspectives

Jean Piaget’ intelligence theory has given rise to the creation of several original tests aiming to evaluate the cognitive functions linked to the different stages of development reached by the child in the various fields defined by Piaget: thus the scale of logical thinking defined by Longeot in 1970 (l’échelle de la pensée logique). Two subtests in this scale come under the physical domain (conservation and pendulum); two under the logico-mathematical domain (combinatorial and probability quantification) and one under the space-representation domain (mechanical curves). The same author has also developed a version of Piagetian test using a pencil-and-paper format (on all these works, see Longeot, 1978). More recently, a scale of acquisition of numbers has been developed based on the model by Piaget: UDN II which includes elementary logic, conservation and numeration, and arithmetic tasks (Meljac & Lemmel, 1999). We mention les inventaires Piagétiens (Piagetian inventory) which is a set of cards describing the main Piagetian experiments and the material used (Pauli, Nathan, Droz, & Grize, 1990). Finally it is significant to mention the introduction of different movements in the analysis of verbal interaction (N. Perret-Clermont) which particularly concerns exchanges/relationships between the subject and the psychologist during the administration of a test. Learning-potential assessment has also a long tradition in French-language psychology. This current can be followed up from the 1930s with the pioneer works by A. Rey, a Swiss psychologist, and A. Ombredane, a Belgian psychologist. For example, learning-potential tests derived from the Kohs or from the Progressive Matrix have been designed (see Büchel & Paour, 1990).

Perspectives on Differential Psychology

It is important to mention the research carried out by the French school of Differential Psychology (l’école française de psychologie differentielle) which organizes an international conference every two years and also subsequently ensures the publication of the papers covered (see Huteau & Lautrey, 1999b, for example). The French school of Differential Psychology, founded by Henri Pieron and established in particular by his successor Maurice Reuchlin, has been a significant driving force behind research in the field of psychometrics. In addition to the conception of tests and experiments, differential psychology has largely contributed to the study and the circulation of psychometric methodology, in particular the analysis in common and specific factors and at present, the use of structural modeling.

The research carried out today is concerned in particular with the analysis of strategies and the resolution process of problems applied to items of cognitive tests (there are some excellent examples in a special issue of Psychologie Française edited by J. F. Richard (1996): le diagnostic cognitif). As an example of this movement it is necessary to describe the computer program, SAMUEL which can constitute a diagnosis of strategies used by subjects during a task inspired by the Kohs cubes. Using filmed recordings of the individuals selected and their verbalizations during the tests, the author, P. Rozencwajg identified three types of strategies adopted. The first was analytical; the original model was split up into smaller cubes, the second was global; the subject identified the shapes made up of several cubes; and the last strategy was synthetic. Using the indications recorded during a computerized test (for example, the time taken during the different tasks, the number and length of time given to consideration of the model), the program can establish a diagnostic in terms of the strategies. This is a particularly interesting approach because it not only allows a quantitative analysis of the cognitive aptitudes but also a qualitative diagnostic.

Metacognition and in particular planification has given rise to some interesting research. An exemplary procedure in this field comes from the deliveryman’ test designed by E. Loarer (see Loarer, Chartier, Huteau, & Lautrey, 1995). The participant is presented with a delivery task including receiving names of towns, and parcels (coloured cubes) to be delivered in these towns while respecting certain temporal restrictions (for example, morning only deliveries) and a model of a wooden lorry into which the parcels should be loaded. The subject must decide on the order in which he would deliver the parcels. He is then asked to load the lorry. This task is interesting because it is relatively realistic. The test has subsequently been computerized which means that a large amount of information concerning the subject’ functioning can be recorded during the test. This experiment has since gained credibility by drawing on a neuropsychological study of the performance of patients with cerebral lesions that provoke dysfunction during planning activities.

Vocational Psychology

Vocational Interests

A recent and general reference on this field is the special issue edited by Bernaud, Dupont, Priou, and Vrignaud (1994): Les questionnaires d’ntérêts. The conception and use of interest questionnaires were developed in the 1950s. At this time adaptations were established by taking the original blanks of American interests (like Strong, Kuder, or Rothwell-Miller). The Research Department of INETOP created a series of questionnaires covering the main stages of the French school system (troisieme: equivalent to ninth year, age 14-15 and terminale: equivalent to the final year of secondary school, age 17-18) giving rise to several studies of school children’ interests.

John Holland’ model has also received wide recognition in France due to the publication of Holland’ Personal Inventory (derived from John Holland’ Self Directed Search) by the Swiss psychologist, J. B. Dupont in 1971. The questionnaire is unique because of its heterogeneous nature; it is divided into different categories: descriptions of self, capabilities, interests in school activities, leisure activities, types of people, etc. We also mention different computer programs designed in the field of vocational guidance that were inspired by the typology developed by Holland. For example, the program La Station Spatiale (Cuvillier, Tandeau de Marsac, Vrignaud, & Dellatre, 1999) is composed principally of an ergonomic questionnaire that allows the subject complete autonomy during the test (using an educational software program explaining the use of the mouse and the keyboard plus assistance throughout with access to a definition of different terms, for example). It permits the psychologist to have 15 screens of results revealing the main indicators useful for a profile interpretation based on the major concepts devised by Holland (consistency, differentiation, etc). This information, combined with the length of the study, opens up a debate concerning the importance given to the social status of certain professions and also in regard to the viewpoints developed by Gottfredson.

Holland’ model has often been criticized by psychologists specializing in career guidance in France because of an inadequate lack of references to the French culture. The overlapping of the two personality characteristics, enterprising and conventional is the main difference noted regarding the theoretical model. It can be demonstrated through a study comparing the interests of young French and American people, evaluated with the help of the inventory of interests established by Strong (1985 version), that this mix-up is also present in the North American population (see Vrignaud & Bernaud, in Bernaud et al., 1994). It is not a question of a cultural difference but a lack of adequate adaptation of the theoretical model, a difference often noted during studies of the Holland model by American authors. The lack of difference between enterprising and conventional led to the creation of a unique model of interests (Larcebeau, 1983) including five different types of interests arranged in the shape of a pentagon. Holland’ model has also given rise to the development of methods for the administering and the feedback of the interest questionnaires (see the Hexanime method as an example.)

Other Variables in the Vocational Field

The vocational guidance field includes many variables like motivation, maturity, and decision style. Original questionnaires, inspired by the theories, have been constructed in the French language (for an example, see particularly, Forner, 1997).

The Study of Decision-taking Strategy

Although the above movements in psychological investigation are at the border of evaluation research, we can briefly mention the evaluation of professional preferences using the models based on the subjectively expected value. The different aspects of professions that are attractive are, for the subject, the benefits to which the values are attributed. This movement has produced different instruments used to measure the area of interests. Thus the Platon program (Mullet, Barthélemy, Duponchelle, Muñoz-Sastre, & Neto, 1996) allows the user to determine the importance each subject attributes to different factors of the professions such as the salary, work, conditions, etc.

The Personality Field

Firstly, it can be said that in this field an objective questionnaire is not, according to the surveys, one of the instruments that is most often used. Methods such as the interview (structured or not), biodata, and observation techniques are more commonly applied. Projective techniques, in particular the Rorschach method and his interpretation, have given rise to important research and some more unique procedures. Surveys results reveal that unfortunately graphology is very widely used, including in the area of employment selection processes, although its lack of scientific grounding is all too well known.

With regard to the objective questionnaire, the main instruments of personality evaluation have been largely taken from Anglo-Saxon methods: Eysenck questionnaires (EPI), Guilford—Zimmerman questionnaires, and Cattell questionnaires (16PF) to name but a few. The frequent use of the Guilford—Zimmerman questionnaire is without a doubt unique to France, which can be explained by the tendency of psychologists to have great difficulty in letting go of the instruments they used during their initial training. The model of the Big Five has on the other hand given rise to the creation of some unique research instruments. For example the D5D questionnaire uses a series of five adjectives to establish a profile of the subject according to these five factors (description in five dimensions by Rolland & Mogenet, 1994). Recent methods such as the evaluation at 360° have also given rise to different adaptations.

The Competence Assessment Procedure

The competence assessment procedure represents the social change and progress of methodologies particular to France. Its uniqueness is twofold; on the one hand it concerns the integration of different methods and disciplines and on the other hand it concerns the subject’ position during the evaluation process. Legislative texts published in 1991 gave everyone the right to have a free skill assessment. This assessment is aimed at everyone, whether unemployed or not, wishing to establish a professional project at whatever moment of his or her professional life. The cost of this assessment is covered by the company (in the case of an employee) or by the organization (in the case of an unemployed person). The assessment allows a triple agreement between the individual, the assessment centre, and the paying organization. The length of the assessment is 24 hours, combining different services (interviews, tests, and group work) spread out over several weeks. The person is accompanied throughout the duration of his assessment by a tutor who is there to help him understand and take stock of his performance at each stage and to define the different activities that he or she will carry out according to his or her personal needs. These activities can include interviews, taking individual or collective tests with a psychologist, an evaluation of qualifications with a teacher, and access to specific job information with active professionals. At the end of the assessment, the individual is provided with a complete written report of his achievements after discussing the conclusions with the various people involved. A description of the procedure and the methods used can be found in Lévy-Leboyer (1993). The effects of skill assessment on career planning and identity have been studied (see Lemoine, 1998).

Another procedure connected to the skill assessment is the validation des acquis (work experience validation). The aim of this assessment procedure is to allow a person to obtain a certification of professional knowledge which can be used to access a profession or educational and vocational training in the same way as a diploma (for a presentation and a discussion of these procedures, see Aubret & Gilbert, 1994).


To recap rather briefly the main ideas presented in this article, we can conclude that the psychological assessment methods in the area of tests and evaluations are caught between two trends: on the one hand is the development of some unique methods/instruments and on the other hand is the adaptation of these methods, in general Anglo-Saxon, to suit the French field of research and practice. A French specificity is without doubt the importance accorded to the person as we can see clearly demonstrated above by the procedures used in the competence assessment.

The above perspectives should be regarded by the reader as a brief overview of some of the research and methods in France as it is clear that we do not have sufficient space to do this subject full justice. We are particularly concerned with having overlooked the importance of the French-speaking world in general. Few would disagree that the techniques and methods developed have given rise to numerous fruitful exchanges between French-speaking countries, such as Belgium, Canada, France, and Switzerland, regardless of nationality. It is important to consider the common elements and the specificity of the different evaluation methods developed in each of these countries. Moreover perhaps we can conclude with a reminder that in developing countries, promoting teaching in French, there exists at present a definite current for adapting the different evaluation methods starting from French tests and questionnaires even when these are adaptations of an English-language instrument.