Important Concerns and Theories About Intelligence Testing

This is a discussion about the important issues that surround intelligence and the use of intelligence testing. The science of intelligence testing is more than a hundred years old, although intelligence is still a term that most people, even many professionals, do not truly understand. Most do agree that the concept involves the abilities to learn, to understand, to reason, and to apply knowledge in new situations, but “definition” depends almost completely on the context in which it is used. To explore this controversy in much depth would be a daunting challenge, given the full extent of the issue at hand with its many definitions, theories, and methods of study. This discussion will include some review of the historical background and an exploration of the potential dangers of continuing to use intelligence tests today. There needs to be serious assessment as to whether, in the twenty-first century, the measure of intelligence has any value.

The first important question to be raised about this issue is what exactly is meant by the word “intelligence”. Psychologists, educators, and researchers all give slightly different meanings to the term, which creates much disagreement and confusion. For example, as outlined by Pyle (1979), Alfred Binet defined intelligence as the ability to judge, to comprehend and to reason well, biologist Cyril Burt defined it simply as an innate, general cognitive ability, and psychologist David Wechsler defined it as the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with the environment. Depending on the investigator, there will either be a biological focus on adaptation to the environment, an educational stress on learning capacity, or a psychological concentration on cognitive functioning and its development (Pyle, 1979). It is easy to see how difficult it can become to figure out a concept when people are rarely talking about the same thing.

It would appear obvious that the most logical approach to defining intelligence is multi-faceted, recognizing that there is a broad set of abilities that allows people to be successful in their environments and that people are intelligent in many different ways. There are, however, many different theories of intelligence, a fact that further attests to the uncertainty and subjectivity that surrounds the topic. There are theories of that focus on general intelligence (“g”), those of multiple intelligences, some that differentiate between crystallized and fluid intelligence, those that focus on innate abilities, and others that emphasize the role of development; the list goes on and on. All of the different theories attempt to explain intelligence as a concept, and it seems that all are correct in some respects. This, of course, puts one back where he or she began, trying to simply define “intelligence”; it is a circular problem. Most psychologists and educators agree, though, that intelligence definitely involves reasoning and problem solving skills, as well as the capacity to acquire knowledge (Gray, 1991).

With all of the controversy concerning the defining of intelligence, the thought of testing intelligence and relying on test results becomes an even more debatable idea. Historically, intelligence tests were developed for use as assessment tools in school, employment and military settings. School systems wanted to determine who would profit the most from education, and teachers wanted help in deciding into which grade level to place children. Employers wanted an easy way to decide who to hire, and military personnel sought help in deciding how to assign their recruits (Gray, 1991). And from a psychological standpoint, the purpose of testing was to measure and monitor individual differences, in order to make both predictions and comparisons.

Currently, though, there seems to be little practical reason to use tests of intelligence, as literature suggests that they offer very little. In the academic setting, for example, test validity is typically established through correlations of IQ with other indices thought to reflect intellectual ability, such as school performance. There have been a number of studies examining the relationship between IQ scores and achievement, finding only moderate correlations within the range of 0.30 to 0.70 (Gray, 1991). The coefficients on the lower end of that range prove fairly unsatisfactory, raising questions as to how well IQ tests actually measure that which they intend. After all, how does one quantify the ability to reason or one’s ability to adapt to the environment? And is that accurately reflected in one’s grades?

It is questionable that intelligence is something that can truly be measured, and it is thought of as little more than a hypothetical construct (Pyle, 1979). And even if intelligence could be measured, on its own, it does not offer much information. Theory seems to ignore many of the social and environmental factors, such as poverty, education, cultural values, nutrition, and intellectual stimulation, that influence intellectual ability and play a key role in how “intelligence” manifests itself (Gray, 1991; Hout, 2002). So the question remains of why intelligence testing is still being used. With a concept that is so multi-dimensional, it is troubling that intelligence seems to hold so much importance and is still considered a useful measure.

One possible reason is that since most people do not fully understand the complexity of the concept of intelligence, they simply accept any information that is presented on the subject. For example, despite what research has shown, IQ scores continue to be misinterpreted and incorrectly equated with things like academic achievement. IQ has become the numerical representation of “smartness”, but people rarely question what that actually means. The problem of defining intelligence leads to much confusion and misuse of the term. Another possibility is that IQ testing fulfills our need as a society to evaluate and quantify everything in order to categorize and separate. It is always the goal to set apart those who have exceptional abilities from those who are unable to function well in society, and intelligence tests provide that “objective” means of division. Some have argued that intelligence tests were important assessment tools in helping to identify individuals who needed special attention in school or at home, which may have been a valid point decades ago. Now, though, IQ testing may actually do little in the way of diagnosis, as psychological research has developed a number of assessment measures that are more reliable, valid and appropriate (Freides, 2001). Psychologists and researchers may want to seriously question our need as a society to still assess individuals using a measure that may not be all that informative.

Intelligence is the construct that allows us to see how we compare to others, and it is implicitly assumed to have great, but abstract, importance. Now most probably feel that all of the controversy that has surrounded IQ testing is essentially harmless, and nothing more than differences of opinion. There are, however, grave dangers that come along with the use of intelligence testing, especially when it may serve no practical purpose. Rather than being a useful measure, intelligence tests may be providing scientific basis for hurtful, damaging views.

Over the years, several theorists have used intelligence to explain race and other group differences. The most notorious researcher on the subject would be Arthur Jensen, who has devoted entire books to the idea that there are genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups. He, and apparently many others share the belief that there are clear, intellectual differences between racial groups. In the light of other research studies, though, these ideas may or may not be true (Freides, 2001). For example, it was found that white Americans score an average of 15 points higher in IQ than African Americans (Gray, 1991). However, in what is known as the Flynn effect, the IQ scores of most racial groups have increased by about 15 points every twenty years. This attests to the fluidity of intelligence and also challenges the acceptance of intelligence testing, since the measure shows so much variability (Freides, 2001). Eugenics, which deals with the improvement of a race’s hereditary qualities, has been fostered by the historical circumstances that have created racist attitudes. Jensen-like arguments have been the basis for claims that interracial breeding should not occur because it would undoubtedly dilute the gene pool of those with superior intelligence (Smedley, 2002). Welch (2002) introduces the term “Negrophobia”, which she defines as the antipathy toward black people expressed by those who view them as a threat to notions of white racial superiority and privilege. This perceived threat of racial minorities has continued to provide sufficient grounds for division and separation. Racism is a separate issue all on its own, but the role that it has played within the realm of intelligence cannot be denied.

This eugenic ideology as it relates to intelligence becomes particularly dangerous when it is used as justification for unfair or unethical practices. Views spill over into other realms of life, such that discrimination and prejudice are able to influence many different social and political spheres. These types of opinions are often implicit, operating without any expressed awareness, but their effects are seen and felt everywhere. Each year there are numerous lawsuits filed for unfair employment or hiring practices, college admissions, and the like. Similarly, tests like the SAT fall under a lot of scrutiny because of the group differences that are systematically found in performance. It all really comes back to the intelligence argument though, when one analyzes the situation. It is still a matter of equating intelligence with these other important measures.

It seems like the intelligence testing debate will remain as such until the truly important questions are both asked and reliably answered. The ultimate goal needs to be to determine whether or not intelligence testing is useful, given that it is so hard to define and measure. There must be serious inquiry and objective scrutiny, although that is a fairly idealistic approach. To get to a solution, the following queries should be considered: How should we think about intelligence and IQ testing today? What valuable information do we gain from intelligence tests? How and under what circumstances should they be used now, if at all? Are there better measures of ability and intellect that currently exist? And why do we as a society still need to use intelligence tests? These are all important questions, whose answers should carefully be sought.

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