Thinking Outside the Stanford-Binet, Part One

Not too long ago I participated in a discussion about IQ and it opened my eyes to the different relationships people have with it. Several people knew their scores, although many raised doubts as to the validity of this number that is theoretically supposed to tell you how intelligent you are. Others were understandably distraught at the conflation of IQ with intellect. The discussion raised several valuable, albeit sensitive, questions and ideas. Is intelligence something that can really be quantified at all, and if so, why do we place so much importance on it? Should we completely disregard the concept of IQ or does it have a role?

Although attempting to measure and quantify intelligence is not a new exercise, the basis for our modern IQ, or intelligence quotient, came from French psychologist Alfred Binet who developed the Binet-Simon test along with two colleagues as a means to determine what was then known as “mental retardation” (a term that has recently fallen out of favor) in school children. Binet himself cautioned against placing too much significance on the test, stating that “the scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”

Unfortunately, the eugenics movement co-opted his test in order to forcibly sterilize thousands of American women, many of whom were poor African-Americans. Scientific racism used IQ as a means to lend credence to their deplorable claims about race and intelligence, a debate that unfortunately still continues to this day. The team of psychologists who later revised the test into the well-known Stanford-Binet supported the forced sterilization of people they termed “feeble-minded” for the good of American society.

Needless to say, the history of IQ is fraught with prejudice and I could write a whole book on the history of IQ and societal treatment of those with disabilities. But even to this day IQ still remains a loaded topic and those prejudices still prevail. How many of us have heard, or even used, the phrase “that’s so retarded” as a substitute for stupid? There is even an OkCupid question that asks, “Should people of lower intelligence be allowed to reproduce” and many people answer “no.”

Which brings us around to the conflation of intelligence with IQ and the limitations of the test. One story my mom likes to tell is my first experience with an IQ test. The proctor asked me a fairly simple question, “Where does the sun set?” Being something of a show-off, I decided to go into a long-winded description of the solar system and how all the planets revolve around the sun. Since that wasn’t the answer she was looking for, although it was technically correct, I was cut-off at that point in the test. Although my mom told this story more to demonstrate my stubbornness more than anything, it does reveal some of the flaws inherent in IQ testing. Cases similar to mine played a part in spurring the theory of multiple intelligences and inspired debate around what intelligence really is, which I will focus on in another installment. In the meantime, what are your feelings on the “intelligence quotient”? Is there any place for it in modern society or is it too often used as a tool to reinforce prejudices?


3 replies on “Thinking Outside the Stanford-Binet, Part One”

No, don’t apologize! I love information! I work with people who have developmental disabilities so I’m definitely familiar with the IQ testing used to determine SSI benefits. I’ve actually taken the Woodcock-Johnson (I’m 23 and it still makes me giggle) too when my mom was in graduate school for special education. I think it has a place as a part of assessments, but there are a lot of cultural assumptions surrounding IQ that need re-working- and it sounds like you’re doing just that in your job!

I could talk about IQ all day long. I am finishing up a graduate degree in educational psychology and working on licensure, and I am trained on multiple intelligence assessments. I think the main issue with the way society in general talks about IQ is that it is not as simple as it is portrayed. It’s not just a number- that number has meaning. It’s not arbitrary, and confidence intervals mean that a true IQ has some variation. Percentile ranks are better than actual scores for reporting, IMO. IQ measures play a large part in extremely valuable assessments that help both children and adults acquire the services they need, including everything from ADHD support and testing accommodations at school to SSI payments.

IQ is based on a number of factors these days. Most valid and reliable assessments use Cattell Horn Carroll theory to define general intelligence (G) into broad submeasures of intelligence that look at everything from processing speed to quantitative reasoning. Each of those submeasures also has smaller categories that can be measured. Assessments are now normed and updated to give these comprehensive, individualized pictures of intelligence. Additionally, they are not (or should not) be used alone for classification of any sort. An IQ measure alone is useless. I should also point out that very few people use the Stanford-Binet anymore. The Wechsler or Woodcock-Johnson (I KNOW!) are far more common. They fit best with the theory mentioned above.

As far as multicultural issues go, historically it has been a major problem. IQ tests have been used for discrimination and eliminationism for a number of oppressed populations, and most schools still struggle with special education disproportionality. However, if you look at that particular research, you’ll find that it’s not simply because of IQ assessments, but because of administrator -isms, disciplinary laziness or frustration, and lack of assessment overall. The preferred technique within the last 10-15 years is to address multicultural or culturally and linguistically diverse populations with cross-battery assessment. This approach utilizes the aforementioned CHC theory and relies on multiple assessments to gather the best measures of intelligence for a particular student, allowing the examiner to select instruments with low cultural loading. Additionally, we also use curriculum-based measures that rely on the actual material a student is being taught in the classroom and a Culture-Language Interpretive Matrix to interpret intelligence tests for multicultural examinees.

I apologize for dumping all of this information on you, but I think this is important to note. It’s also important to remember not to conflate intelligence (the potential for learning, or what we can do with information) with knowledge. The idea that IQ tests are biased and outdated isn’t new, and it’s something that my field has spent decades working to fix.

I think it can be a useful tool, in conjunction with other forms of testing, perhaps. But it’s not all that reliable – I’ve gotten IQ scores with a 40-point difference depending on what test, when I took them, and how much prep I’d done. Plus there’s the Flynn effect.

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