I.Q.: a Number Signifying What?


I appreciated Nicholas Kristoff’s recent article on the malleability of I.Q., the measure of something that has something to do with intelligence, we think, maybe. What I applaud in Kristoff’s piece is his insistence that we no longer accept the notion that I.Q. is genetically determined. Hear, hear!

The following paragraph, however, has continued to disturb me since I first read it:

Professor Nisbett provides suggestions for transforming your own urchins into geniuses — praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity — but focuses on how to raise America’s collective I.Q. That’s important, because while I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.

Here’s the problem: “we’re not certain exactly what it does measure.” Oh? But it “correlates to greater success in life,” whatever that means and however such success is measured once we determine what it means.

Correlation is important because it enables scientists to relate circumstances that seem to go together without falling into the trap of cause and effect statements, but correlation is also easily abused. Cancer research and treatment, for example, depend upon correlations and their percentages of coincidence. The presence of calcium deposits in breast tissue may serve as a marker for Ductile Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) since there is some level of coincidence. So, discovering new calcifications suggests to physicians that they should look more closely at the breast. But to my knowledge no one is embarking upon a campaign to reduce the incidence of calcifications as though doing so would somehow reduce the incidence of DCIS (or of invasive breast cancer).

That analogy is imperfect, I know, because calcifications are a marker, not a test for measuring the amount or level of something, but I wonder if I.Q. isn’t more just a marker than we realize, that may (but therefore also, may not) correlate to the presence of academically effective intellect. I believe we do need to think long and hard about the unwarranted validity we attribute to standardized tests of every kind. Imagine an engineer picking up an instrument and saying, “I don’t know what this thing measures, but let’s use it anyway to collect measurements for data on this new project.” No, it would trouble the engineer not to know what the instrument measured because the resulting measurements would be . . . What’s that word? Oh yeah, useless.

Calcifications are an actual condition of life, the life of a breast. If their emergence correlates to a statistically increased likelihood of the presence of cancer, then physicians do well to pay attention to them. But I.Q. tests are not a condition of children’s lives; they are an imposed procedure that measures we know not what but fixes to the child a number signifying maybe something, maybe nothing. Yet, not knowing what they measure, we go right on using them and their numbers to shape and determine children’s futures.

And we try to raise them, the numbers that is. Bravo! But since we don’t know what they measure, we don’t know what we’ve raised, either, except (of course) the test scores themselves.

Teachers have assessments that measure a child’s progress in, say, learning to read. They can teach a child skills in identifying problems, formulating possible solutions, testing their formulations, learning to make predictions, and developing new understandings. They can help children learn to write more effectively as well as more confidently. They can enable children to learn to think mathematically and scientifically. Or they can work instead on raising test scores which mean, again, we know not what.

Validity is the word. We have plenty of tests that score well on reliability, meaning the same person will score roughly the same upon taking the test again and again. But validity refers to what the test actually measures and how accurately. Without validity, what good is correlation when we are talking about an imposed test, not a natural or even socially natural occurrence? Because standardized tests generate lots of data that can be graphed, analyzed, and proclaimed in Powerpoint presentations, we pretend they are gold. They give authority to people who know nothing about the actual subject, teaching for example. And we do love authority, no matter how vacuous.

Again, I applaud what Kristoff seems to be trying to do: overcome the determinism that enables us as a society to dismiss large numbers of children from our concern and educational best efforts. And if I.Q. tests were the only ones, I would not be writing this. But the masses of data generated by meaningless standardized tests are empowering people who know little or nothing about the processes of education to take charge, hamstringing and belittling our nation’s teachers and threatening the education of our children.