Is intelligence testing in school the smart thing to do?
In educational settings, intelligence tests are used more and more frequently. The results of these tests are used for a multitude of purposes. Usage of these tests, however, also has negative sides. So how smart is using intelligence testing in school?
In the schools of today, more and more emphasis is being put on children’s cognitive and intellectual capacities. In practice, it is commonly thought that knowing the intelligence level of an individual child will help with decisions about that child’s optimal learning climate. As a result, we often see the outcomes of tests of intellectual and cognitive functioning, such as IQ tests, being used for deciding on suitable pedagogic and didactic interventions, selection for and placement in special schools, etc. With classrooms becoming more diverse, in the light of the implementation of inclusive education, for example, this approach is understandable. However, relying (solely) on such tests does have important drawbacks. How smart is it to use intelligence testing in schools?
Intelligence testing is a complicated field because of the large variety of working definitions and conceptualisations of intelligence. What stands out in the majority of these definitions is that intelligence is a complex, multifaceted conglomerate of different, interrelated, abilities, skills and forms of knowledge. Taken together, these tools help us adapt to the ever-changing world around us, for instance by reasoning deductively and inductively, applying our existing knowledge flexibly to solve (new) problems, and so on. In other words: these are the tools that enable learning.
A single IQ score
We now know a little bit more about the complex nature of the concept of intelligence. Can we be 100% sure that an intelligence test sufficiently captures all these abilities and skills? Unfortunately not. In administering IQ or intelligence tests, very often the focus is on the end product, a ‘test score’, which usually takes the form of a single, unitary score, the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ. Needless to say, a single score cannot fully capture all the different aspects that play a role in intelligence.
We can, moreover, question the usability of the information conveyed by a single score, such as an IQ. Consider the following situation: Jodi is in fourth class in primary school. She is doing ok at school, but is struggling in maths, and reading comprehension. Jodi’s teacher, Ms Mitchell, has tried to give her additional help and instruction. Unfortunately, Ms Mitchell’s intervention has not led to sufficient learning progression, so it is decided that Jodi’s intelligence needs to be tested. Jodi’s test results are ok – she has an IQ of 99. This IQ means that, in comparison with her agemates, Jodi’s cognitive abilities are ‘average’. How does this information help Ms Mitchell adjust the instruction and help she wants to give to Jodi? Should she then provide ‘average’ instruction?
Measuring previous learning
Already in 1905, Alfred Binet, who developed one of the first modern intelligence tests, defined intelligence as ‘the ability to learn’. Although we have amassed more than a century’s worth of knowledge about intelligence since 1905, we still test it (roughly) the same way: a child is given a short standardised instruction, and has to complete several cognitive tasks, sometimes under time pressure. Funnily enough, Binet himself already argued that the test he had developed did not provide a clear and direct measure of children’s ‘ability to learn’. Researchers and practitioners alike have voiced their concerns that these tests to a large extent measure children’s previous learning rather than their learning ability. If these tests measure previous learning, then are they the right instrument for deciding on future learning?
I think we can all relate to this: don’t we all have past learning experiences that are not indicative of our cognitive and intellectual potential? Indeed, research shows us that underperformance in (standardised) testing situations can be the result of several factors, including socioemotional factors, such as test anxiety, and cognitive factors, such as executive functioning.
Should we then refrain from using tests of cognitive ability altogether? This might be a little bit too drastic. Standardised intelligence tests can certainly provide us with useful information. We should, however, be mindful of the reasons why we want to use such a test. What do we want to know about this individual learner? Can this test provide us with sufficient answers? Moreover, we should be cautious in interpreting the test results, and be aware that they only reveal a small portion of children’s capacities, more like a snapshot.
Luckily, there are plenty of valid and reliable alternatives. Some of these tests, such as dynamic tests, combine testing and learning in the testing process. In so doing, these tests come much closer to measuring the ‘ability to learn’, and, at the same time, provide information on the instructional needs of individual children. This information can then be used by educational professionals, such as Ms Mitchell, for adjusting their didactic practice to the individual educational needs of learners in an inclusive educational setting.