The Denial of Reality
The American education system seems to be suffering from trickle-down subjectivity, an intellectual atmosphere that in many ways screams, “if it feels good, do it.” In a field that fancies itself a proponent of psychology and sociology, psychometrics is curiously pushed to the fringe. Meanwhile, practices that harm students, like constantly bribing them with candy or giving equal credit to all members for group work, are the norm because everyone is observed to be having fun and getting along. While these methods are not based on reason or evidence, their use is understandable; objective methods, like psychometrics, often reveal hard problems and harsh realities for which our current system is unequipped. The premier example of the denial of reality in public education is the failure to test students’ general intelligence factor (g). Only on the extreme ends of the spectrum – with learning disabilities on one end and giftedness on the other – do educators collect intelligence quotient (IQ) data. The simple fact that schools endlessly test achievement while avoiding tests for aptitude clearly demonstrates a willingness to deny reality because achievement only tells part of the story. Although educators have reasons to be skeptical about IQ testing, the passive denial of general intelligence produces real-world ramifications including the negation of benefits that may accrue from using psychometric data.
Arguments Against the Applicability of IQ
It is safe to say that most teachers do not enter the profession for monetary reasons, rather they truly care about kids. Unfortunately, emotional motivation sometimes results in irrational views toward intelligence testing. Teachers often worry that test results can lead to hurtful labels. However, labeling occurs at many levels. If a student receives a C in a class, have they not been labeled a C-student? What is the difference between that label and one that follows from an IQ test? The only difference is the former measures achievement with little diagnostic power while the latter measures aptitude. Furthermore, the avoidance of explicit aptitude labels necessarily causes teachers to form their own implicit, unspoken labels derived subjectively.
Teachers also fear that IQ tests are biased and consequently cannot measure the intelligence of culturally marginalized students. But the truth is not sinister. IQ tests undergo constant iterations of test-item analysis, based on rank-order correlation specifically targeted at removing questions found to contain cultural bias (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994, p. 632). Intelligence tests that do not require cultural knowledge, such as the nonverbal Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices, also exist (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994, p. 273).
Another objection to measuring g appears to have a theory backing it up. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is largely embraced by educators because it makes intelligence a more subjective and egalitarian concept. Unfortunately, there is no data to back up Gardner’s theory. In their landmark book, The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994) note, “Gardner’s approach is also radical in that he does not defend his theory with quantitative data. He draws on findings from anthropology and zoology in his narrative, but, in a field that has been intensely quantitative since its inception, Gardner’s work is uniquely devoid of psychometric or other quantitative evidence.” (p. 18) It is a classic case of objective and subjective separation; feelings versus facts. Other intelligence researchers, such as John B. Carroll (1993), point out that if you attain a high measure of intelligence in a specific domain, it will ultimately be correlated to g (p. 73). Gardner himself does not deny the existence of g, he just doubts its’ utilitarian value. (Woolfolk, 2012, p. 138) In other words, he would rather look away from reality in favor of subjectivity. Meanwhile, teachers feel free to apply MI theory with no evidence to support it.
Real World Impact
Teachers’ dogged clinging to subjectivity has real-world consequences. A final argument against IQ testing is that it results in tracking students, restricting them to predetermined pipelines based on their scores. Teachers abhor tracking; it is not fair. However, they do it unconsciously, made unaware of their own machinations by the denial of reality. Schools pride themselves on making students college-ready, require teachers to prep for mandatory ACT tests, and boast about the percentage of graduates who go on to university. It’s a lofty, rosy goal that touches faculty, parents, and politicians right in the feels. Ironically, this is tracking to the highest degree – and it is tracking without sufficient data. The results of such misguidance can be disastrous for the individual. After all, cognitive ability as measured by IQ is tightly correlated to college grades and college graduation rates, meaning lower IQ scores predict poor grades and a higher probability of dropping out. (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994, p. 472) Imagine being that student, told your whole life that you are the same as everyone else and that college is the road to success, only to be hit with reality, realizing you were set up for failure. Now you are confused, in debt – and worst of all – you do not understand how this happened, and don’t know who to blame.
Arguments for the Applicability of IQ
The cost of denying reality is not limited to college-dropouts. Everyone loses the potential benefits that come from measuring IQ when they reject its importance. For instance, nearly every teacher strives for accurate and effective differentiation in their classrooms. IQ scores provide excellent data that could be used for differentiation. They remove a certain degree of guesswork. Two examples point to how IQ scores can be used in this way, though the implementation of such ideas would necessitate radical alternatives to the current education paradigm.
First, many IQ tests, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, test for g by correlating various sub-domains of cognitive function. The results of these subtests – broken down into verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, processing speed, visual-spatial, and working memory – provide a more granular picture of what’s going on in the mind of a student. One benefit this provides to educators is the ability to spot incongruities, or what one psychologist refers to as intra-scatter amongst the subtests (Headlee, 2013). Imagine a child who does poorly at reading and does not talk a great deal. Without IQ data, the child can be thought of as shy, something to be outgrown. Or they are just viewed as unmotivated. If only their parents would make them read at home. Imagine this same child receiving an IQ test that reveals higher than average scores on all the subtests except for verbal comprehension. That is intra-scatter. Suddenly, we no longer see a shy or lazy kid, instead, we see a bright kid whose language acquisition does not match their general intelligence. Something, such as an auditory complication or dyslexia, is causing the discrepancy. Our solutions can now be targeted at the real problem.
Second, a lower IQ score does not mean a student cannot become competent in a given domain, but in most cases, it will mean a greater sustained effort. This is due to the fact that intelligence can be understood as both fluid (Gf) and crystallized (Gc). Roughly speaking, Gf reflects “basic abilities in reasoning and related higher mental processes” and Gc is “the extent to which the individual has been able, partly on the basis of ‘fluid intelligence’, to learn and profit from exposure to his or her culture through education and other experiences.” (Carroll, 1993, p. 61) Put simply, Gf is the speed of knowledge acquisition and Gc is the sum of acquired knowledge. Since time is the only true equalizer, a student with a lower IQ has different needs than a higher IQ student. The higher IQ student can learn task specific skills much faster, leaving a surplus of time for more esoteric pursuits. If the lower IQ student is expected to be successful, their educational focus should be narrowed to those subjects that will have the most benefit. In special education, this is common practice; very low IQ students are shifted to a life-skills curriculum years before graduation. Moderately low IQ students, however, often find themselves on the college-ready track. Harvard psychologist and author, Steven Pinker, expresses the problem in his book, The Blank Slate:
“no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.” (Pinker, 2002, p. 236)
Pinker lays out a reality that cannot be wished away. As he so plainly states, avoiding tradeoff decisions is irresponsible. The cure for that irresponsibility is a more objective view of reality, hopefully one that takes IQ into account. If students benefit from differentiation within a classroom, how much more would they benefit from differentiation within the system as a whole? We are tracking students anyway, why not track them based on reason and evidence instead of wishful thinking?
Psychometrics can confer real benefits to the education system, but their use is railed against in the current zeitgeist. Teachers, parents, and concerned citizens have emotionally valid reasons to be skeptical about measuring students in such profound ways. However, many of these same fears are either unfounded or irrational. Where they are unfounded, our teacher training programs need to do a better job of educating pre-service teachers about the realities of cognitive science. Where they are irrational, the benefits of psychometrics, such as sub-test analysis and differentiated curriculum should be proclaimed and explored. In a field that desperately needs innovation, IQ tests and other psychometrics offer an objective approach to education and a departure from subjective whims and fantasies.
Carroll, J. B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Headlee, C. (Interviewer), Gonzalez, I., Kaufman, S. B., & Lahey, J. (Interviewees). (2013). Is It Time To Get Rid of IQ Tests In Schools? [Interview transcript]. Retrieved National Public Radio Web site: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=213822184
Herrnstein, R. J. & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
Woolfolk, A. (2012). Educational psychology: 12th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson.