The Back To School Series: IQ and You

September 26, 2010

There was an entire body of work at the early part of the last century devoted to the fact that people of color, including Blacks, were of low intelligence because they scored lower on Euro-American tests of intelligence.  Lewis Terman, who was an enormous figure in IQ (Intelligence Quotient) testing in an influential book The Measurement of Intelligence, states:  a low level of intelligence was “very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families in the Southwest and also among Negroes.  Their dullness seems to be racial…” (Terman, 1916).  The tests themselves were developed with European values about how to measure intelligence at their core.  Creativity was100%  absent from the formulation.  The data were often collected on middle class whites which contrasted them with impoverished people of color. 

Another popular book related to this subject, The Study of American Intelligence (1923) by Carl Brigham when reviewing data on IQ tests administered to Army personnel concluded that they proved the superiority of the “Nordic” type over the “Alpine, mediterranean and Negro groups”.  Brigham later recanted these claims in the Psychological Review (1930) journal, but many people remained unaware of his recantation.

The perspective that people of color were of lower intelligence so infiltrated American thinking that we are still contending with ths today, as it has been argued again and again that programs such as Head Start are a waste of tax money because they do not improve performance. The argument is basically many people of color will never learn at the same rate as Caucasians so stop trying to help them. We continue to use tests derived from Terman’s original battery as a measure of intelligence even though it is biased.

So, what is intelligence?  Within the field of psychology there is no consensus about this. (Yet we continue to label these tests as tests of IQ.)  I often describe intelligence as the capacity to A) think and to B) use that capacity to function the best way you are able in your life.  Current IQ measures do address the first part (A) but are very limited even with that.  They do not address the second part (B) at all. 

During an intelligence test, you may be asked to complete puzzle-like tasks and demonstrate that your memory is good and that you can concentrate.  However, IQ tests continue to fall short now in terms of a heavy focus on material that you have already learned.   That is a biased approach to intelligence in and of itself as some children simply do not have the same resources or value the same things as some counterparts.  I will argue that the child with the different resources may still have a very rich experience, just not one in line with mainstrean values.  This does not in any way make them less intelligent than those counterparts.

I have noticed that these tests (there are several kinds)  are evolving into more neuropsychological instruments, which tap into brain function, but they have not evolved enough if  are “fund of information” and “vocabulary” which are no doubt influenced by environment, as part of the quotient, which they continue to be.

What IQ Tests Do and Don’t Do

IQ tests are useful in that they provide some prediction about how a child will perform in a mainstream Euro-American environment, because the values of the test are consistent with mainstream values.

They give some information about memory and concentration, as I mentioned above which may be useful for understanding how a child thinks or what areas are strengths and which are weaknesses in the context of Euro-American functioning. 

They by no means reflect “Intelligence” for all people in all contexts. 

Much of the historical data can be found in:  Thomas, M. D. Sillen, S. (1991).  Racism and Psychiatry.  Carol Publishing Group Edition.

Brigham, C. C. (1923).  A study of American intelligence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

***Coming Soon:  What to do if the School Tells you your kid needs to be tested for IQ.

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4 Responses to “The Back To School Series: IQ and You”

  1. I’m so glad you commented on my blog, since it lead me here!

    This reminds me of something that happened to me growing up in Florida, in a fairly diverse area, though still predominated by white middle-class folks. There was a student being tested for Gifted class, and he was incredibly bright. However, he was also the child of migrant workers living in the shacks set up by the Florida orange-growers. He failed the Gifted test by 1 point because he didn’t know the difference between a “plate” and a “saucer” (it was a picture ID question). Why on earth was that even a question on a Gifted test?! What kid other than a white, middle-class student is going to have seen a tea-cup with saucer? ARGH.

    Your post made me remember him and hope he was doing well…

    • Thank you so much for visiting and your input is greatly appreciated.

      I want to let you know that my passion for psychology started in literature with symbolism. I respect what you are doing and will be checking your site often.

    • yoy50 said

      WOW! What a factual recall of this you have. I feel very saddened that this child missed such an unimportant thing on a ‘test’ which could potentially change the course of his life (long term). Being a ‘minority’ is really a son-of-a gun sometimes! I really hope this young person has gone on to do well over the course of time too. ARGH indeed!

      @ Dr. Arrington– such a GREAT POST (as usual). 😉

  2. So, finally we are starting to look at issues about IQ testing (well, England is anyway). it’s a start. See: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/10/20/141511314/iq-isnt-set-in-stone-suggests-study-that-finds-big-jumps-dips-in-teens

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