No Fixed Stars: Thoughts on I.Q. Testing

by Matthew Koslowski on February 3, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, Ph.D., with Lou Aronica
Alfred Binet, Wikipedia
Lewis Terman, Wikipedia

I have always been aware of ideas of intelligence and, therefore, ideas of Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.).

Unless you count a silly Internet test I took in college, I have never taken an I.Q. test. Often I have wondered what my I.Q. was, assuming as I did that I.Q. was a valid measure of intelligence. Since I did well in my scholastic subjects, I thought I would score high on an I.Q. test and I wanted in my insecurity about my own talents an objective verification of what I wanted to believe about myself but doubted.

When I moved to Ohio for college, I learned from friends that administering I.Q. tests is routine procedure in Ohio. I felt cheated then that Massachusetts did not do the same.

Now, however, having read more about the history of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, I am thankful not to have had my I.Q. measured in this way.

The Frenchman

Modern intelligence testing can trace back to some work done by a Frechman named Alfred Binet. Binet had no formal training in medicine or psychology, but was self-taught. He never held a post as a professor of psychology and this may contribute to his relative obscurity today.

His interest turned to developmental psychology after the birth of his daughters, Madeleine in 1885 and Alice two years later in 1887. His work my have influenced Jean Piaget, the famous child psychologist.

In 1899 Binet joined the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Five years later, the French Government commissioned the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child to create a commission for the education of retarded children and develop a method for identifying developmentally challenged individuals so that they could be given additional educational support.

The result was the Binet-Simon Scale. The original test would not resemble what I think of when I think of an I.Q. test today. A facilitator would go through a series of thirty tasks, from a simple handshake to remembering a string of random digits to making judgments about situations from vague descriptions. At the end, a child’s mental age would be estimated. Binet had determined what tasks children of a certain age should be able to perform by taking a group of children identified as average by their teachers and using them to establish the baseline.

Binet acknowledged the limitations of his scale. His scale was only valid, he said, on children from similar backgrounds and was not intended as a universal scale. He believed that intelligence was not a simple quality and was influenced environment and educational opportunities. He worked for the rest of his life to refine the scale, publishing three versions before his relatively early death at 54.

And the American

The man who is responsible for developing intelligence testing in the United States, who started from the work of Alfred Binet, was Lewis Terman. He took the Binet-Simon Scale as a starting point and adapted it, becoming known as the Stanford-Binet Scale because he was a professor at Stanford at the time he published his work on the Binet-Simon Scale, The Stanford Revision to the Binet-Simon Scale.

Reading about the beliefs of Binet and Terman, I cannot imagine they would have agreed about anything. Terman believed that intelligence was a fixed quality that could atrophy with inadequately stimulating environments or with disuse, but could never be developed beyond an inborn natural limit.

What I find most unsettling in reading about Terman is that he believed in eugenics. He believed that humans should engage in selective breeding for the betterment of the human race. One stated goal for testing was the “curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency,” (Lewis Terman et al qtd in Wikipedia).

Although he used Binet’s work as a starting point, Terman did not heed Binet’s acknowledgment of limitations of his own scale. While Binet said that results of his test were only valid if they were used on children with comparable backgrounds, Terman sought to write an universal test. After developing his test he administered it to native speakers of Spanish and poor blacks. Rather than use the results to refine his test, to see if the test accurately assessed the intelligence of his non-white subjects, he assumed his test was valid using the results to condemn the intellectual capacity of whole ethnic groups. Terman judged his Hispanic and Black subjects to be mentally inferior and more prone to crime.

Categorizing People: A Cautionary Tale

Terman took Binet’s work, which sought to assess children in order make sure they were all given appropriate instruction so that they could all receive an education, and perverted it. He wrote that the Hispanic and the Black children,

should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master [abstractions] but they can often be made effecient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.

–Lewis Terman quoted in The Element, pages 39-40.

I am afraid to think of how persistent this idea still is.

If you doubt that this idea persists, consider the following: the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, claims to predict preparedness for college. The SAT, which Ken Robinson points out was also developed by a eugenicist (The Element, page 41), has challenged as being unfair to black students, yet it continues to be used. The claims that it can predict success in college have received mixed reviews. Yet it continues to determine who gets into college.

The Lesson

I don’t believe in fixed quotients of intelligence. Evidence shows that with study and practice, individuals can change how they score on standardized tests. But I think that there is an undercurrent of testing not as a tool for assessment and course correction, but rather as an immutable ranking system.

In developing tests and thinking about using tests, we should make sure that we are using them to guide us, that we try to develop them so that they are fair, that we periodically test our tests and question our assumptions and that we recognize the limitations of testing.

Otherwise, we could be snuffing out whole constellations of bright stars.


One Response to “No Fixed Stars: Thoughts on I.Q. Testing”
  1. Lee Marcotte says:

    thoughtful and thought provoking as usual