President Trump recently challenged Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson over Twitter to an IQ test contest in order to determine who is more of a “moron,” following a rumor that Tillerson had referred to the President as such. The IQ test — often seen as the truest indicator of intelligence — remains deeply flawed as an indicator of intelligence, true intelligence, success, and work ethic.
Exactly why it became such an important marker of our intelligence is confounding.
Imagine taking a test one day as a kid (or the President), a test you know that has a lot riding on it, a test that will separate you from the gifted courses, from the regular courses, from the remedial courses, from being smarter than your colleague. Imagine that you are very nervous. Imagine that your mom told you how important the test is, but you’re nervous and don’t want to mess up. And then you bomb. You get moved from your classroom and into a remedial classroom where you swear you don’t belong. You’re bored every day, but everyone points to this test — this test that says that you are of below average intelligence — and says that they know better. You are unchallenged, but there’s nothing you can do to change your situation.
Bombing an IQ test could limit your kid’s academic opportunities, but also force a label upon your kid that isn’t accurate. In fact, studies show that variance in different IQ tests could make one single person’s IQ range nearly 20 points based on the test given. That’s not a small number — there’s a big difference between scoring an 80 and a 105. Additionally, it’s important to remember that the IQ test is just that: a test. Test taking is anxiety-inducing for many people, especially poor test-takers. And test performance can vary widely depending on the day, depending on how you’re feeling, depending on if you got a good night’s sleep or a decent breakfast.
Evidence also suggests that IQ test scores have been rising over the past decade, which suggests that we are all becoming, if not more intelligent, better at taking tests, and better at practicing taking tests. That would mean that those who took IQ tests decades ago would have significantly lower test scores than children — whether or not children are smarter than us. IQ tests are also only markers of “intelligence” at a given time. Research has shown that IQ test results can vary over our lifetimes because hard work and diligence can make our “intelligence” grow significantly.
If IQ tests are supposed to define our ability to succeed in school and life, then we would need to define in very narrow terms what success looks like in our children. Some teachers report achievement in test scores and report cards. Others do so in classroom participation, in homework completion, and attendance. So why use a two-to-three digit number to determine the ability to succeed, when success is defined very differently by many different people?
There’s also the troubling evidence that there is only a scattered correlation between IQ and academic achievement in general. Some studies, like one by Kevin McGrew, showed that there was a positive correlation between IQ and test performance, but that positive correlation was only .75. That same study also showed that of those who take IQ tests, half of them scored way above their expected achievement scores, meaning that labeling them — and limiting them to — predicted achievement based on one single test is not an accurate predictor of intelligence.
The pitfalls of IQ tests are many, and the benefits are few. So why do schools — and officials — still cling to IQ tests as their method of perceived intelligence? Is it a habit? Is it convenience? Is it simply a pissing contest between world leaders who are supposed to be on the same team? Who knows — but what we can do for our own kids is help them (and our academic and world leaders) recognize that a simple test is not an accurate indicator of aptitude, success, or anything else, for that matter. It’s just a number.