Feb 15, 2007

On the Value of Standardized Test Scores

I have been thinking about the nature of human intelligence this morning, a train of thought that was brought about by my filling out employment applications for summer teaching positions.

As a rule I score quite high on standardized tests, and many opportunities have opened up for me over the years based upon my IQ, ACT, SAT, and GRE scores. I say this not in a boastful manner, but rather because I find such tests to be of little use in determining the current or future value of a human being. Such scores only reflect a hypothetical potential ability of a person, but offer little in the way of analysis of a person's character, or how hard a given subject will work to attain goals.

Moreover, there are many criticisms of social and cultural biases inherent in such tests. Children growing up in homes in which the "learning environment" consists of little more than cable television will certainly perform at a lower level than children raised in a home in which self-edification is held up as a worthy goal.

As a young man I squandered some excellent university opportunities, preferring instead to make money in the business world. I dropped out of college at the age of 21, enticed by the income possibilities of climbing a corporate ladder and owning my own business.

Since deciding to return to the university setting seven years ago, I have gained a far greater appreciation for the value of hard work. Setting aside the debate over the meaning of university diplomas ("are they really just pieces of paper?"), I recognize that a BA, MA, or PhD demonstrates that a recipient of such a degree at least knows how to work and achieve goals.

But what does a high IQ really mean if that person is self-centered and mean-spirited? How does that person's measured high intelligence really benefit humankind? I offer as an example the personage of neo-Nazi Bill White, who claims to have achieved a score of 152 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale (I am ignoring for the moment the issue of the validity of his IQ claims).

And just how valuable is such a "genius" to a future employer - or society at large - in comparison with a dedicated, hardworking person who just happens to score lower on certain standardized tests?

I confidently entered my test scores in the application form, but I thought about people I know who might be as qualified (or even better qualified) than I for the same position, but who might get passed over because I aced the GRE and they struggled. In the end, I think these tests measure only one thing - the ability to take standardized tests.

And - truth be told - how accurate can a test be that purports to measure quantitative reasoning when a person like me - who had not taken a mathematics course since 1983 - scores 750 out of 800 possible points, and who admits in a post like this that he made educated guesses on over one-third of these fairly difficult math questions?


Hooda Thunkit said...

An acquaintance of mine, who I worked with for several years admitted to having a double digit I.Q.

However, due to his determination, he was one of the best at what he did.

IMO, interest and determination are overriding factors.

Peahippo said...

Well, I have two things to say about this bullsh*t topic. Hooda touched upon the basic problem, and I'm only too happy to expand upon it.

Firstly, I knew a woman in college (we were both in the Engineering Physics program at the Univ. of Mass. at Boston) who did very well at IQ tests. We got to discussing this one day, and I discovered that her father was an academic who designed IQ tests. Her father had frequently given her his draft IQ tests so he could see how he and she would do. I can only imagine that being so practiced at taking such tests, she naturally continues to do quite well.

Secondly, intelligence is one of those things (like that other topic: money) that many people think they know about it, yet they haven't the faintest clue of what the topic really involves. I had to stop and consider this some years ago, and noted that I, too, had fallen into the trap of thinking that I actually knew what intelligence really was. After some more sober reflection upon it, I arrived at a "personal definition" of intelligence that has well served me since:

"Intelligence is the ability, drive and gumption to do ANYTHING."

By this definition, I am myself not that bright. Somewhere along the way, you can always find an issue in my life where I have dropped a term out of the ability + drive + gumption equation.

By the same token, bell curve or not, the majority of the population of the United States are at most "dull normals" whose survival is only assured by the First World environment they live in. Few people under this definition are appropriately considered "bright"; the rest are merely the best-educated morons that Humanity has even produced. This made more and more sense to me, since it is quite apparent that ... yes, you guessed it: most people have no rational idea what intelligence really is. The lack of comprehension of intelligence seems to indicate that real intelligence is lacking in the population.

MP said...

Great post!

Personally, I do horribly on standardized tests. I don't feel dum though. I don't claim to know everything though.

Usually, I got and still get pretty good grades.

And in law school, let me tell you, performance on the LSAT is WORTHLESS!

-Sepp said...

I've seen some pretty stupid people score pretty high on some of those tests.