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No one likes a clever dick – which is why we take a dim view of IQ testing, or any other measure of raw intelligence. We’re willing to accept academic qualifications, which require the effort of prolonged study, but not a test where one can do well without even trying.

The SAT Reasoning Test, which is a major feature of America’s education system, is basically an IQ test (unlike the ‘SATs’ or National Curriculum assessments used in England) – and, as such, it comes in for a lot of stick. The essential argument is that all that the SAT measures is the ability to do well in the SAT – and that more nuanced methods are required to assess a student’s potential.

This is how one college professor put it in an article for the New York Times:

“The only way to measure students’ potential is to look at the complex portrait of their lives: what their schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity.”

However, in a must-read article for Slate, David Hambrick and Christopher Chabris set out the evidence that SAT and IQ tests are useful predictors of educational outcomes in the real world:

“The SAT does predict success in college—not perfectly, but relatively well, especially given that it takes just a few hours to administer. And, unlike a ‘complex portrait’ of a student’s life, it can be scored in an objective way.”

Nor is the predictive value of this kind of testing limited to academic achievement:

“SAT scores even predict success beyond the college years. For more than two decades, Vanderbilt University researchers… have tracked the accomplishments of people who, as part of a youth talent search, scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by age 13. Remarkably, even within this group of gifted students, higher scorers were not only more likely to earn advanced degrees but also more likely to succeed outside of academia. For example, compared with people who ‘only’ scored in the top 1 percent, those who scored in the top one-tenth of 1 percent—the extremely gifted—were more than twice as likely as adults to have an annual income in the top 5 percent of Americans.”

Another sceptical argument is that the SAT is little more than a test of privilege:

“It’s true that economic background correlates with SAT scores. Kids from well-off families tend to do better on the SAT. However, the correlation is far from perfect… What this means is that there are plenty of low-income students who get good scores on the SAT; there are even likely to be low-income students among those who achieve a perfect score on the SAT.”

In fact, there’s good evidence that extra tuition (as paid for by parents who can afford it) has little impact on SAT scores – as one might expect with a test of innate ability (as opposed to a conventional, prepared-for exam).

Of course, intelligence isn’t the only attribute that matters. Nor can IQ-based testing replace conventional qualifications and curriculum-based assessments – after all, it’s not enough to know about a student’s aptitude for learning, we also need to know what they’ve actually learned.

Nevertheless, given the undoubted significance of cognitive reasoning ability and the relative ease with which it can be tested, it seems odd that, in Britain, we fail to make the most of this information. An objective, standardised measure of raw intelligence would, if nothing else, enable us to systematically identify bright kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and follow up their progress through the education system. If talent isn’t translating into achievement then we need to know about it.

To waste a child’s potential is a scandal – and to not even notice makes it worse.

25 comments for: Heresy of the week: Every child in the country should be IQ tested by the state

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