Why is intelligence testing a questionable practice?

Intelligence testing, which is an important tool for psychological screening and profiling of subjects, has attracted much criticism from various quarters.  Intelligence testing, as in standardized IQ tests, have certain limitations, which render them in-comprehensive.  For example, psychologists such as Daniel Goleman have introduced a new dimension to cognitive tests by recognizing the importance of ’emotional quotient’ (EQ) or ’emotional intelligence’ (EI) in order to fully measure cognitive ability.  Further, many scholars have identified a race/ethnic bias in the construction of conventional tests, which make dubious the validity of their results. For example, the case of examiner bias in Scholastic Aptitude Tests in American schools is widely documented now, putting at disadvantage students from ethnic minorities like African and Hispanic Americans. (Gould, 1996)  The rest of this essay will elaborate these points which question the value, consistency and comprehensiveness of conventional intelligence tests and identifies scope for their improvement.

Ever since Alfred Binet and Theophile Simon created the first ‘intelligence test’ in France in 1905, such tests have attracted controversy.  Devised to identify possible mental deficiencies in French public school students, these tests were translated in English and adapted to public schools in England and the United States by 1910.  Henry Goddard who promoted it in the United States, administered it to a batch of 2000 White school children and came to the conclusion that “a child cannot learn the things that are beyond his grade of intelligence”. (Franklin, 2007, p.216)Later, he created a range of scores for ‘normal’ White children and started to compare across such divisions as “rural versus urban, native-born versus foreign-born, and others.” (Franklin, 2007, p.216)  Later when Howard Odum applied the Binet Intelligence Test to black children, he concluded that there were clear disparities between White and Black children if all facets, including “environment (home conditions), school conditions and progress, and in mental and physical manifestations” (Franklin, 2007, p.217).  Being an influential sociologists of the time, the observations of Goddard and Odum were taken seriously in government policy circles.  The result was the institution of segregation, whereby black pupils were confined to exclusive public schools with a special curriculum that focussed on teaching them vocational/practical skills.  One can see how this kind of institutionalized discrimination caused discontent among disadvantaged communities.  They questioned the authenticity of supporting scientific evidence as well as the tests.

Further, in his book The Measurement of Intelligence, published in 1916, Lewis Terman made the following observation about the poor showing of African American, Native American, and Mexican children on the tests:

“Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come. The fact that one meets this type with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and [Negroes] suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew.. .there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences…which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.” (Franklin, 2007, p.217)

Such crude assessments of differences between races/ethnicities might come across as a shock for a contemporary reader.  But such views were the accepted norm of the time, and what bare scientific evidence could be found to support these claims were fully exploited to legitimize political and social subordination of minority communities.  While the case of science-backed-discrimination is better documented in American scholarship, the phenomenon was present across the globe in all imperialist nations, including the UK.  It wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the 1960s and public agitations by the black community to achieve equality with whites that such entrenched views about intelligence were seriously contested.  Until then the results of intelligence tests were used during the first half of the twentieth century as a justification for political oppression of minorities.   It is because of this chequered history of intelligence tests that they are treated with apprehension and scepticism even today. (Fancher, 1985, p.110)

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