Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beware the IQ Score: New Research Challenges Our Ed Policy and Practice

Beware the IQ Score: New Research on Intellectual Development Challenges Traditional Educational Policy Based on Reliance on IQ Scores and the Assumption that a Person’s Intelligence is a Constant

By Matt Cohen

For over a hundred years, researchers, educators and others have debated about the factors that contribute to human intelligence. It has been generally believed that a person’s intelligence was primarily innate, that is that it was based on their genetic makeup and under most circumstances would remain constant. Intelligence might decline due to severe illness or neurological trauma affecting the brain. It might be subject to some positive influence through early interventions such as Headstart. However, for most people, one’s intellectual ability would remain relatively the same throughout their healthy life. This belief has had an enormous impact on educational policy. Formal and informal tracking systems in regular education and programming and placement strategies for many children with disabilities have been heavily influenced by the belief that one intellectual potential was essentially constant and not significantly related to one’ s education, upbringing, enrichment experiences and other external factors. The possibility that one’s intellectual ability or potential could be positively or negatively influenced by the quality and intensity of education and other positive or negative environmental experiences should dramatically change our commitment to providing more intensive and sustained educational experiences for all children, rather than assuming that the intellectual cake is baked by adolescence, if not earlier In addition, the belief that intellectual ability was constant gave measuring a person’s intelligence n special importance, as it appeared that it was not only possible to assess a person’s intellectual functioning at a particular point in time, but that, barring neurological damage, that assessment was likely to be predictive of the person’s intellectual performance from childhood onward. In other words, your intellectual ability, whether high or low, was essentially thought to be pre-determined. .

Remember that one’s native intelligence or intellectual ability does not equal one’s performance. As well, IQ tests purportedly measure intellectual ability or potential, where academic achievement tests are intended to measure what a person has learned. A person can have high intellectual ability and perform poorly academically. This can occur due to the presence of a learning disability, poor teaching, lack of motivation or many other factors. The converse was generally believed to not occur- one could not generally function academically higher than one’s intellectual potential. The growing recognition that a person’s intellectual ability can be influenced by their academic experience, positively or negatively, undermines some of the key assumptions about how we educate people and how we structure curriculum and resources for education. If a person’s intellectual ability can be substantially improved with higher quality teaching and can be negatively impacted by poor teaching (and other environmental factors), it raises the stakes enormously in relation to the need to provide “the best” or at least “much better” education, as opposed to the minimally adequate education that we often currently provide.

Complicating matters, even assuming that the beliefs about intellectual development are accurate, modern societies and particularly the United States, have attached tremendous importance to the assessment of intelligence and have used IQ scores for everything from kindergarten classroom placement to qualifications for employment. There are even organizations for the intellectually gifted. IQ scores follow us from an early age—either a gold badge of ostensible superiority and promise or a scarlet brand on the forehead—a numerical message that the individual has limited ability for intellectual growth or performance.
Adding insult to injury, there are many problems with the accuracy of IQ testing. The tests are often based on norms (comparison groups) that may not adequately represent all of the people being tested (you can’t predict the IQ of an apple when you are comparing it to the IQ of an orange). They often are dependent on means of testing that do not adequately control for the limitations of the tests. For example, few evaluators would give an IQ test requiring vision to someone that is blind, but many IQ tests requiring language are given to people with language problems and most if not all IQ tests require attention and concentration, though some people that are very bright have problems in these areas.

Our educational, vocational and even social policies are in many ways based on the belief that one’s intelligence is static. Consider the degree to which schools shift from a regular curriculum to a “functional” curriculum for children labeled as mentally retarded. Or that the law allows schools and parents to waive the requirement for three-year reevaluation based on the assumption that the child’s functioning may not have changed much. Or that a high or low IQ scores can entitle one or exclude one from special benefits, from disability benefits for those with developmental disorders to extra accelerated educational programming for students considered to be “gifted.”
Although still a source of controversy, there is a variety of research that also suggests that teacher expectations for students, based to some degree on the perception of the student’s intellectual potential, create a self-fulfilling prophecy that impacts the student’s academic and overall performance. (See for example
and )
Indeed, it is my suspicion that this phenomenon is present not only among educators, but with parents, families, employers and the society at large. If someone is told that a person is cognitively delayed or intellectually gifted, most people adjust their expectations accordingly. In turn, this often has a significant impact on the person’s self-perception, self-confidence, motivation, and performance. But at the most fundamental level, the assessment of intellectual potential for many people significantly influences the level of information and experience that they are exposed to. The assumptions about the person’s intellectual ability drive the type of academic instruction they receive, the content, rate and intensity of material, the expectations for progress, and even the types of cultural experiences they may have. Does the IQ brand impact performance? It is hard to imagine otherwise. There are many reasons that this is problematic, but especially if the brand is not accurate or reliable.

But new research about intellectual development raises even stronger concerns about the assumption that IQ is static—the assumption that we can take snapshots that allow us to accurately assess it and respond to the individual or groups of individuals based on these assumptions in ways that presume to link the level of instruction, cultural experience and vocational potential to performance predictions based on the IQ scores. This past week, Nature magazine (a UK-based science magazine) published a study indicating that the intellectual ability of students continues to change through their teen years. Cathy Price, at the University College of London, conducted this study on teens between the ages of 12 and 16. Her team found that a teenager’s IQ can rise or fall as much as 20 points over the short span of four years. In the statistical analysis of IQ scores, that 20 point difference in IQ score could represent the difference between a label of average and gifted or average and cognitively impaired. In her study, 20% of participants moved either way on the intelligence scale—showing the ability of experience to alter intelligence. Such changes were found to actually correlate with changes in brain structure. While the study is still new, and its findings require more research for any broad conclusions, it provides hope that intellectual potential may not have the plateau we once thought. Early assessment may not be a telling indicator in all circumstances, which should alter the way we think about education, academic performance, and our children’s potential. This is especially true in relation to children with disabilities, as there are a number of very important educational, programmatic and even procedural decisions that have historically been heavily influenced by our assumptions about the static nature of intelligence.
In light of this research, consider these principles in relation to testing, intelligence and expectations:

First, if as the research suggests, a child’s cognitive ability (not performance, but actual intellectual ability) can be dramatically influenced by non-physiological factors, we need to rethink our entire approach to educational theory, programming and tracking systems. Rather than assuming that a student with a low IQ scores in elementary school is developmentally consigned to function at a low cognitive level for life, justifying an educational plan that lowers expectations, content, and intensity, there may be renewed basis for raising standards, expectations, and intensity to promote the potential intellectual growth of the student, as well as their academic achievement. If we teach low, this research suggests that we may miss the opportunity to shatter our self-imposed cognitive glass ceiling.

Second, the research highlights the tremendous danger in utilizing IQ snapshots, particularly from testing performed when children are in elementary and junior high schools, to track students. The misuse of IQ scores may occur in relation to the determination of whether someone has a cognitive disability or simply based on gradations of ability within the regular education population. By making tracking decisions based on the early IQ scores, or even based on perception of intellectual ability driven by teacher or parent judgment, even without IQ testing, we assure that the students perceived to be less intellectually capable will be provided a lower level of instruction, potentially guaranteeing a lower level of performance by an individual capable of developing further. The new research showing that a child can experience gains or losses in intellectual ability through adolescence, based on environmental and educational (that is, non-medical) factors, calls into question whether the use of IQ tests as a significant, if not controlling, factor in relation to placement and programming decisions violates the IDEA’s protections against misuse of testing. The IDEA provides:

(b) Evaluation Procedures.--….
(2) Conduct of evaluation.--In conducting the evaluation, the local educational agency shall--
(A) use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent, that may assist in determining--
(i) whether the child is a child with a disability; and
(ii) the content of the child's individualized education program, including information related to enabling the child to be involved in and progress in the general education curriculum, or, for preschool children, to participate in appropriate activities;
(B) not use any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability or determining an appropriate educational program for the child; and
(C) use technically sound instruments that may assess the relative contribution of cognitive and behavioral factors, in addition to physical or developmental factors.
(3) Additional requirements.--Each local educational agency shall ensure that--
(A) assessments and other evaluation materials used to assess a child under this section--
(i) are selected and administered so as not to be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis;
(B) the child is assessed in all areas of suspected disability;
(C) assessment tools and strategies that provide relevant information that directly assists persons in determining the educational needs of the child are provided;
20 U.S.C. Sec. 1414 (b)

If a student is capable of experiencing considerable cognitive growth based on their educational experience, it is inconsistent with these provisions to base their programming on a single IQ test or even a set of scores that assume a static level of intellectual functioning. Instead, those scores may offer a baseline for the student’s potential functioning, rather than a ceiling. Educational decisions based on lowering expectations or programming based on these scores become questionable, both educationally and legally.

In a 1997in an effort to streamline the evaluation/reevaluation process for students receiving special education services, Congress modified the IDEA to eliminate the previously absolute requirement that all students receiving special education services be given a full reevaluation, including new psychological (including intelligence) testing, at least every three years. 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1414 (c)(4). Perceiving the testing to be costly, time consuming and sometimes unnecessary for students whose intellectual or other development appeared static, Congress gave schools the option to recommend either reduced or no retesting if they felt that the student’s functioning was generally constant.
34 CFR Sec. 300.303 Reevaluations.
(a) General. A public agency must ensure that a reevaluation of each child with a disability….
(2) Must occur at least once every 3 years, unless the parent and the public agency agree that a reevaluation is unnecessary.

Parents retain the right to insist on full testing, but frequently acquiesce to limited or no testing based on school recommendations, particularly for students with labels of cognitive impairment, due to the belief that their cognitive ability could not vary significantly. But it is important for parents to remember they have the option of insisting on full and up-to-date reevaluations at least every three years. Given the inherent limitations in IQ testing, these reevaluations would often be advisable even in the absence of the new research on brain development. However, in light of the new research, it seems even more important for schools and parents to recognize and implement more frequent, comprehensive periodic reevaluation in order to ensure that the student’s programming is adequately challenging them and giving them the greatest degree of opportunity for intellectual growth and enrichment.

No IQ test can take into account the many variations in individual functioning that affect the accuracy of the testing. For example, many IQ tests rely heavily on language skills. A person may have considerable intellectual ability, but language impairments. A language based IQ test would likely yield a score suggesting low intelligence. However, there are non-verbal IQ tests that would help to control for this. Similarly, there are IQ tests that require less motor skills. It is very important to be sure that IQ tests are actually testing the person’s IQ, and not something else that limits their ability to test.

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes that “Principles are like lighthouses. They are natural laws that cannot be broken….The ‘objective reality,’…is composed of ‘lighthouse’ principles that govern human growth and happiness-natural laws that are woven into the fabric of every civilized society throughout history and comprise the roots of every family and institution that has endured and prospered….[there is] the principle of fairness….of integrity and honesty….of human dignity….of service….of quality or excellence. There is the principle of potential, the idea that we are embryonic and can grow and develop and release more and more potential, develop more and more talents. Highly related to potential is the principle of growth-the process of releasing potential and developing talents, with the accompanying need for principles such as patience, nurturance and encouragement.” (emphasis added)

Covey did not write this in reference to the development of the brain, nor in reference to IQ testing, scores, and the ways that our society sets artificial limits based on lowered expectations. He did not write in reference to our educational system and whether it should be structured based on achieving minimal outcomes or to promoting and nurturing and enhancing each individual’s chance to grow as much as possible. But as I read the passage above, by pure coincidence, as I was in the midst of writing this essay, the connection was unavoidable. OUR BASIC PRINCIPLES, OUR BASIC HUMANITY, DEMAND THAT WE PROMOTE THE FULL POTENTIAL OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL. AN ENHANCED RECOGNITION OF THE EXISTENCE OF EVEN MORE POTENTIAL FOR GROWTH IN EACH OF US ONLY STRENGTHENS THE PRACTICAL AND COMMON SENSE BASIS FOR WHAT IS A MORAL IMPERATIVE – EVERY INDIVIDUAL HAS A RIGHT TO GROW TO THEIR FULL POTENTIAL. OUR SCHOOLS, OUR SOCIETY, OUR OWN EXPECTATIONS SHOULD ENCOURAGE THAT, SHOULD INSIST ON THAT AND SHOULD SUPPORT EACH PERSON IN THEIR UNIQUE EFFORTS TO ACHIEVE IT!


  1. Wow, I'm only half way through this, and you have me already wanting to crawl in a hole in shame. Thanks for the challenge.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I feel shame too, when I allow these labels and numbers to color my assumptions and interactions with people, including my own family. We also need to realize that our knowledge of the brain is growing all the time, but is still very limited and avoid the trap of assuming we know more than we do. Most of all, I try to find a balance between not setting artificial ceilings or lowered expectations, without ignoring the challenges each person faces. In any event, I am glad your reaction was to the challenge, as my intent was not to cause shame.

  3. Sandy AlpersteinApril 7, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Just read this through and am all the more inspired and empowered to help kids get all the education they can handle - and then some! Thanks, Matt, for this wonderful piece!