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American education and the IQ trap

For students, one score doesn't tell all.

July 20, 2013|By Scott Barry Kaufman
  • A survey in 2011 found that the predominant method of measuring whether or not students are gifted is assessing their performances in both an IQ test and a standardized academic test. Above: Students at Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana.
A survey in 2011 found that the predominant method of measuring whether… (Los Angeles Times )

What does it mean to be gifted in the United States?

A national survey in 2011 found that the predominant method of assessment, by far, is the administration of IQ tests and standardized academic tests. At least 34 states, including California, consider such tests an indication of giftedness; they are mandated by at least 16 states. In contrast, only nine states require the use of tests that measure "creativity" and even fewer require the assessment of leadership, motivation or a talent for the performing arts. Although no state permits a single IQ score to determine gifted eligibility, 18 states set strict cutoff scores, and testing is typically a one-shot deal: You're either gifted or you're not, for the rest of your life.

On every count, these policies profoundly limit the intellectual and innovative possibilities of all students.

I can attest to just how limiting the process is. As a child, I was diagnosed with an auditory disorder that made it difficult for me to process speech in real time. I repeated third grade. Then, after an anxiety-ridden IQ testing session in fourth grade, I was sent to a school for students with learning disabilities. By the time I reentered public school in sixth grade, the label "special ed" was hard to overcome, despite my yearning for more intellectual challenges. If it weren't for a couple of teachers (thank you Mrs. Jeuell and Mrs. Acton!) who considered the kid rather than the system's preconceptions, I might never have earned a doctorate at Yale.

How does the system go wrong? For one, educators frequently treat IQ scores as if all students with the same score have the same educational needs. In reality, everyone with the same score got there with a different pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. When properly interpreted, a comprehensive test battery can offer insights into working memory, abstract reasoning, visual-spatial ability, mathematical reasoning, reading comprehension, writing ability, vocabulary, auditory processing and processing speed. Research suggests that identifying these specific cognitive skills, not a single global IQ score, has the greatest value for determining who will benefit from various educational programs.

But even done well, standardized testing has limits. Many other factors contribute to learning and real-world success, from active learning strategies to intrinsic motivation, grit, self-regulation and outside support and encouragement.

Consider the Posse Foundation, a national scholarship program that recruits high school seniors with extraordinary potential that standardized testing has missed and helps them succeed in college and beyond. Nominated students, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, undergo a three-month "dynamic evaluation" that involves group and individual interviews to assess leadership, communication, problem-solving and collaboration skills. The aim is to truly get to know the person, not just his or her numbers, to determine who can benefit from the program.

Although the average SAT score of Posse alumni is much lower (1,053 out of 1,600) than the average at the colleges and universities they attend, their academic performance matches that of the general student body at those institutions, many of which are prestigious, such as Cornell University and UC Berkeley. Among Posse graduates are a college dean, a cardiologist, a film director and a lieutenant in the Army. Many have earned graduate scholarships and doctorates. Posse's results demonstrate that people can achieve similar academic and life outcomes by drawing on different mixes of personal characteristics.

The testing system also goes wrong when educators assume that IQ scores and intelligence are immutable. Educational psychologist Kevin McGrew compared test results and reported that a given student's IQ could be expected to vary from 16 to 26 points depending on which IQ test he took. In one large-scale analysis based on 6,321 students, researchers found that only 35% to 40% of the students who met the gifted standard in third grade still met it by eighth grade. Undoubtedly, the reverse was also true.

IQ test score fluctuations may be due to test administrators making a scoring error or to students who zone out. But researchers also credit the brain's neuroplasticity and the importance of experience on its development. Reasoning training, for example, can strengthen connectivity in the "executive attention network," which is crucial to concentration, multitasking and the ability to integrate diverse ideas.

In other words, "human potential" is a moving target. A student's performance at any given moment on standardized assessments ought to be seen as an indication of readiness for engagement in a particular area, not a measure of static ability.

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