This past Thursday, I joined in on a conversation with a few coworkers about intelligence and standardized tests.  We began on the topic of IQ tests.  I’ve never taken an IQ test so I didn’t have too much to offer on the topic.  I did, however, enjoy listening to the conversation.  Sitting there listening in silence, the following thoughts raced through my mind:

1) Why are intelligence tests divided up into neatly separated sections for math (reasoning) and verbal?  I can’t remember many times in my life (outside of taking a test) where I had to use only one of those skills without the other.

2) The notion that one test is suppose to accurately assess the intelligence for every living person is ridiculous.  Intelligence is a truly multifaceted characteristic that I have seen manifested in many different ways.

3) How can a test you take as a child accurately predict your intelligence for your whole life?  I don’t feel I that became “intelligent” until I was 19, during my freshman year of college.

4) Why are most tests timed and tightly restricted to only a few hours?  When I rush through thinking about something, I never make the best decisions.  Never in my working career have I ever been under similarly intense time pressure.

5) I’ve never scored particularly high on any standardized test, but I was able to improve my SAT score by roughly 300 points by studying and taking practice tests.  If the test is supposed to assess my underlying intelligence, why should it make a difference if I study or not?  I certainly became no smarter by drilling through practice tests.

6) IQ and SAT scores carry weight and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.  Nothing fuels a fire of inadequacy like low standardized test scores.

7) At least half of success comes from execution, discipline and dedication.  I’d love to see a standardized test that can assess someone’s ability to execute on an idea and carry it through to completion.

For all these reasons (and more), standardized tests are a rotten way to assess intelligence.  Why do we rely on them so heavily in our educational system?  It’s true that for schools and universities standardized tests are the easiest way to assess intelligence, but like many other things – the easiest way is not nearly the best.

What are your thoughts?

Standardized Tests
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  • Ari

    Well said.

  • You should add GPA to the mix of things that are over-emphasized in our educational system. Too much focus on getting “Straight As” can result in students thinking of grades as the end goal itself instead of the means to a more important end: mastery of the topic at hand that won’t be forgotten immediately post-test. The quest for high GPAs can lead to students choosing easier courses, when they should be choosing courses that challenge them and help them achieve even greater intellectual heights.

  • Well said, Eif. There is also cultural biases to these standardized tests. Many students from low-income backgrounds to do not score as high as their higher income peers and this becomes a sticky situation very quickly.

  • Rod,
    Thanks so much for reading and commenting here! I couldn’t agree more. When I was in college a good portion of the students would “shop around” for easy classes hoping to maintain stellar GPAs. This, of course, came back to haunt them in the end (when they didn’t actually get a good education).

    I go back up to school once a semester to talk to business classes at Skidmore College (my alma matter) – and teachers consistently complain about this trend in education. Further – they worry that the tendency among american students to focus only on grades and not on learning will soon lead to an economic disadvantage for the US economy relative to the economies of India and China. Unfortunately, I think they’re right.

  • Josh- Thanks for commenting!

    I often think about this factor as well. I don’t suppose I would have been able to so significantly improve my SAT scores without tutoring that would be unavailable to those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

  • GPA is a little different – it has more to do with historic success, and is thus a better measure of “achievement.” Unfortunately, as noted, not all classes are equal and treating them as such adds error to the result.

    Standardized tests are problematic, and I’d say no one knows better than the psychologists who design the tests.

    But I think that in many cases the advantages can outweigh the problems (false positives / false negatives).

    Standardized tests may be wrong, but what’s the error rate? Given that error rate, are there better ways to evaluate and compare candidates – either in terms of already known (or verifiable) information, or in the span of a few hours (or less?).

    I’m not sure there are many better ways, or at least ways with fewer problems / error rate.

    I would imagine the problems with intelligence tests comes from how they are applied and how people think of them. In particular, IQ has nothing to do with e.g. success – I’d put my money on hard work and diligence over IQ any day.

    One thing: IQ tests are on an ordinal scale, i.e. someone with an IQ of 120 is not 20% smarter than someone with a score of 100. I tend to get the impression that people don’t grasp this.

    One last thing:

    >How can a test you take as a child accurately predict your intelligence for your whole life? I don’t feel I that became “intelligent” until I was 19, during my freshman year of college.

    IQ is an intelligence quotient, i.e. it tests your performance relative to your age group. So if you’re one standard deviation above the mean at age 10, chances are you’re one standard deviation above the mean at age 25.

    Your raw score will be considerably different, of course.

    IQ also doesn’t test knowledge/comprehension, and tests go to great pains to try and make the test require no background knowledge at all. Otherwise they would not be useful to compare people from different backgrounds or socioeconomic statuses. That’s actually where a significant amount of the improvement in IQ tests have come from over the past 80 years.


    >I often think about this factor as well. I don’t suppose I would have been able to so significantly improve my SAT scores without tutoring that would be unavailable to those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

    The questions used to be very biased – that is, the questions assumed a certain level of background knowledge that someone from e.g. a white middle-class background would know, but not a black kid from the ghetto.

    Sure, tutoring isn’t available either, and that doesn’t help.

    I will note that SAT scores don’t measure anything in particular, and SAT no longer stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test” – precisely because they don’t think it measure that. (Anymore).

    In particular, the only thing they say about the SAT (from Wikipedia) is:

    >…the College Board states that use of the SAT in combination with high school grade point average (GPA) provides a better indicator of success in college than high school grades alone, as measured by college freshman GPA. Various studies conducted over the lifetime of the SAT show a statistically significant increase in correlation of high school grades and freshman grades when the SAT is factored in.

    Or: It’s useful, but it doesn’t mean anything in particular.

    What is it useful for? Presumably, in helping discriminate between high schools that have low standards and ones that have high standards.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for the thoughtful response here, I suppose in the end the more variables the better when it comes to evaluating intelligence?

    One of my favorite intelligence tests is the “creative intelligence” test outlined in Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’.

    Participants would be asked questions like: list all the uses for a blanket.

    Low scores would result from a limited number of obvious answers: e.g. To put on a bed. High scores would be awarded for imaginative uses: e.g. To fan a fire and send smoke signals.

    Maybe this test should be included in the college admission process? Although I suppose it would relatively easy to game.