Socialist Worker

More than a fair quotient of distortion

by Michael Rosen
Issue No. 1886

AN ANNIVERSARY that may slip your notice: the 100th birthday of the intelligence test.

In 1904 a Frenchman called Binet was commissioned to come up with a test which would show that children who were failing would benefit from special education. The test that he came up with was a series of tasks, like counting coins, inventing things.

Binet hoped that by mixing together enough tests of different abilities he would be able to come up with some idea of a child's general potential. By 1909 he was putting these scores into a table set against a child's age and so the intelligence quotient was born.

Binet feared that his test could be perverted. He was worried that teachers might use it as a self fulfilling prophecy, teaching children to the level of the score. He also refused to think of the test as a way of ranking children or that it was linked to an "inborn" quality, and he was passionately in favour of giving extra help to the children who scored badly.

He even devised a set of exercises which he thought would improve a child's intelligence.

After 100 years of IQ testing, it's amazing that the man who invented the thing had a set of ideas that run counter to the way the tests have been adapted and used.

It's worth spelling these out: Binet did not think that intelligence was one kind of ability; he did not think intelligence was linked to our genes; he thought that children who were doing badly at school could be helped and that as a result they would become, in his view, more intelligent and have an increased "capacity to learn".

Since Binet the IQ test has been used in precisely the opposite way. The tests have been narrowed down to ones dominated by maths and logic.

Throughout the last 100 years the scores from these tests (and others) have been used to rank children so that the majority of high scorers have gone to schools with the best facilities and the most qualified teachers.

The majority of low scorers have gone to schools with the worst facilities and the least qualified teachers. (One exception: the super-rich buy fantastic facilities no matter what their kids score.)

The tests' theorists have repeatedly taken the results to "prove" that the thing they've tested (which they call "intelligence") is in our genes.

This was taken one step further to "prove" in the US that "blacks" are born less intelligent than "whites", while in Britain the tests "proved" that poor children were born less intelligent than rich ones.

What's more, this lack of intelligence was, according to the guru of IQ, Cyril Burt, "beyond all hope of cure".

So what's wrong with this?

It's nonsense to imagine that intelligence is one thing. Humans have many different kinds of intelligence and we have names for some of them: skill, "nous", common sense, talent, imagination, empathy, powers of reasoning and creativity.

Some we don't have names for: like abilities to help people cooperate or to be courageous in the face of superior power trying to control or humiliate you.

On the matter of the tests themselves, we know that whatever kind of school test is being given to children at the moment (and I'm not in favour of any of them), scores can be improved with help, time, practice and encouragement.

What's more, we know that there's only one kind of child who gets a real chance to have this-the children of well-off parents.

What a terrible distortion of Binet's original idea.


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Sat 31 Jan 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1886
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