James H. Borland, Ph.D. is director of the Center for the Study and Education of the Gifted, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is a contributing editor for the Roeper Review.
ApologiaI am venturing, with no little trepidation, to say a few kind words about IQ tests and their use in programs for the gifted. This trepidation is not caused by a lack of belief in the tests’ utility, at least when they are used properly. Rather, it stems from my awareness that the topic is so controversial and highly charged that to take a stand on it invites glib categorization with respect to whether one is politically a liberal or a conservative, whether one is a believer in the primacy of heredity or of environment in shaping cognitive development and whether one is an elitist or an egalitarian.
It would be nice to be able to assert without being disingenuous that such questions do not or ought not matter in a discussion about what is essentially an issue of educational practice. However, in an era that has seen, among other things, the use of IQ tests to enforce racial and socioeconomic segregation, the threat of physical attack on a leading advocate of the hereditarian point of view, a successful libel action (albeit with an award of one dollar) against the Atlanta Constitution by a proponent of the notion that certain races are genetically inferior to others with respect to intelligence, and in this writers opinion, the transformation of the Federal Department of Education into a dumping ground for reactionaries and religious extremists, that luxury is effectively denied. To combine, in writing or print, the letters "I" and "Q" that order is to join a battle already in progress, a battle in which the belligerents on both sides see themselves as the forces of enlightenment, and heir foes as not merely wrong, but damnably wrong. Caught as we are in the midst of a controversy whose principals often seem more eager to generate heat than light, it is difficult to perceive clearly the dimensions of the issue. It maybe instructive, therefore, to take a few steps back in order to view the problem historically.
The Lippman-Terman Debate RevisitedThe argument over the value of IQ tests is at least 64 years old. I use that figure because it was in 1922 that Walter Lippmann and Lewis Terman squared off in the pages of The New Republic in famous exchange of articles and letters dealing with the tests, their merits and demerits, their uses, and their potential abuses. The substance of that debate has generally been forgotten. Most people simply remember that Lippmann scored a technical knockout over the flat-footed and outclassed Terman and that he, Lippmann, argued that IQ tests were invalid, dangerous and about as beneficial as smallpox.
The first part of this recollection is quite true. Lewis Terman, the 'Father of the Gifted Child Movement in this country, was no match for his adversary, one of the greatest political thinkers this country has producer (see Ronald Steel's biography, 1980, for some insight into Lippmann's mind and character). Terman comes across in those debates (which are reprinted in Block & Dworkin's collection, The IQ Controversy, 1976, pp. 4-44) as pompous, condescending, and 'bigoted; Lippmann as witty, articulate, and humane. But collective memory is faulty when it comes to the content of the debate, especially with respect to Lippmann's opinion of IQ tests. Terman's point of view was, quite unequivocal, and it should be familiar to most readers of this journal. On this occasion, however, he simply wrote that "the validity of intelligence tests is hardly a question the psychologist would care to debate with Mr. Lippmann" (Block & Dworkin, 1976, p. 33) and, instead of debating the point, attempted to ridicule Lippmann and his concerns about the tests. But what was Lippman's position?
The following passages, all taken from Block and Dworkin's (1976) reprinting of Lippmann's New Republic articles are, I believe, representative of his opinion of IQ tests. For example, he stated that, "it is important that in denying the larger pretensions and misunderstandings we should not lose sight of the positive value of the tests" (p.17). Among these positive aspects, Lippmann emphasized the use of the tests in grouping children for instruction. "We have found reason for thinking that the intelligence test may prove to be a considerable help in sorting out children into school classes," he wrote, and he looked forward to "a more correct system of grading, such as the intelligence test promises to furnish" (p.18) In fact when used properly, IQ tests were according to their most famous and articulate critic, "an invention which has many practical uses" (p.20). Even in his rejoinder to Terman's ad hominem response to his articles, Lippmann wrote. "I honestly think that there is a considerable future for mental testing" (p.42).
An awareness of Lippmann's beliefs about IQ tests has value today because he is viewed accurately by many as the first credible critic of the tests. However, few of those who hold Lippmann in high esteem as the first to gainsay the infallibility of IQ tests seem to realize bow moderate his opinion really was. To read the current arguments being made for and again8t the tests is to risk concluding that there are only two possible points of view. One of these is that IQ tests are loathsome devices employed by individuals with outdated conceptions of human intelligence for elitist, perhaps racist, purposes. The other is that opponents of the tests are fuzzy-minded, unscientific rabble rousers who refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence, revealed by IQ tests, that, in Terman's words, "some members of the species are much stupider than others" (Block & Dworkin, 1976, p. 30).
What is lost in the current controversy is the possibility of a less extreme view, one similar to Lippmann's. This point of view, to which I subscribe, is that IQ rests, even with their history of abuse, have a place in our educational practice. One must be aware of their limitations, and one must be careful to augment their use with other instruments and methods. However, it is my belief that the wholesale abandonment of IQ tests in school programs for the gifted would be a major mistake based on a misguided conception of the rationale for such programs. In the remainder of the paper, I will try to make a case for the use of the tests in a manner that is consistent both with our goals as educators of the gifted and with the egalitarian ideals embodied in our national heritage.
Limitations of IQ TestsAt the risk of repeating some of the points, made by other contributors to this issue of the Roeper Review, I would like to acknowledge the limitations of IQ tests and their potential for misuse. I do this not only to clarify my position on the tests but also to establish a framework for their informed use.
First, and most fundamental, IQ tests are not valid tests of intelligence. One can be confident in making that statement even if, like me one would not feel comfortable if called upon to define intelligence comprehensively. Whatever intelligence is, most theorists (e.g.. Gardner, 1983; Guilford, 1967: Stern-berg, 1984) believe it to be something richer, more complex: and more extensive than the mental prowess required to achieve a high IQ. IQ tests are, and were originally designed to be, nothing more than devices for generating numbers that are useful in assessing academic aptitude within a given culture. They give us clues as to the probable success of children in our current educational system, although with less than perfect accuracy.
Second, the tests produce different results for different groups. For example, it is widely known that the mean IQ of blacks in this country is a full standard deviation below that of whites. What is one to make of this? A simplistic (and, I believe, racist) conclusion is that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. A more defensible position, consistent with my first assertion, is that the tests are reflecting the pervasive bias feud in our society. If IQ tests are to predict success with any validity in a school system that, as Michael Katz (1975) and others have pointed out, subserves a social order that is in many important respects racist, the tests will have to show that the victims of this racism are at a considerable disadvantage. This is what they do. To do otherwise would be to gloss over the effects of our greatest national disgrace. However, this is something that must be kept in mind if IQ tests are for selecting students for special programs.
Third, IQ tests have on occasion been both the method and the pretext for sums appalling abuses of children in our educational system. Rather than interpreting the results of IQ tests for various groups as reflecting the structural inequity of twentieth-century American Society, some educators, psychologists, and others have used the test scores to keep certain groups down or out. Terman, for example, wrote in 1916, after testing a pair of American Indian and Mexican children, that "their dullness seems to be racial...The fact that one meets this type with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and Negroes suggests quite forcibly that...there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences...which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture" (quoted in Kamin, 1976, p. 374). Today, although nobody this side of the lunatic fringe would mouth sentiments similar to Terman's, it is not uncommon to find programs for gifted children in which, as the result of admission procedures based solely on IQ tests, minority children constitute a much smaller percentage than they do in the school district at large.
These limitations and abuses, along with numerous others, are part of the reality of IQ tests today. I do not think they invalidate the tests as useful tools for educators of the gifted. However, they certainly condition their use, and anyone, such as this writer, who advocates using IQ tests in programs for the gifted, had better be aware of the pitfall awaiting the unwary.
A Case for the Use of IQ Tests in School Programs for the GiftedThe Purpose of Programs for the Gifted. Why should we have programs the gifted? The manner in which one answers this question is of central importance because the reasons advanced to justify special programs inform and shape the programs themselves. This is a basic but often overlooked point, and it is a crucial one. The why's of programs for the gifted, the implicit and explicit assumptions held by those responsible for their creation and administration, directly affect the how's and what's of those programs.
To simplify matters greatly, one could claim that there are two basic rationales for special classes for the gifted. Depending on which one underlies a given program, the definition of its target population, its identification procedures, and so forth will take a characteristic form. Since this bears directly on the advisability of using IQ tests, I would like to discuss these two rationales briefly.
The national-resources approach. The first of these basic rationales for special programs, and perhaps the more prevalent one today, is what I call the "national-resources approach." Those who subscribe to this rationale regard gifted children as a vast, untapped, potential resource that should be developed for the national good. Thus, a child is labeled a "gifted child" if he or she shows signs of becoming a gifted adult; the ultimate criterion for giftedness is adult productivity.
A prominent contemporary example of this approach is found in the writings of Joseph Renzulli (1977, 1978: Renzulli, Reis, & Smith, 1981). By studying the traits of a number of adults who contributed to our culture in the past, Renzulli abstracted three traits (above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment) that he believes were most salient in the productivity of these individuals. Since these appear to be the dominant traits leading to the productivity of eminent adults, he reasons, they are also- the traits that should be required of children who enter programs for the gifted.
Given that a gifted child in this case is defined as one who shows signs of becoming a gifted adult, identification of such children must depend on instruments and procedures that are valid predictors of vocational or worldly success. It is clear that, according to these ground rules, IQ tests are not the optimal tools. For while correlations in the .50 to .70 range are typically cited (e.g., Thorndike & Hagen, 1969, p. 324) as obtaining between IQ and measures of school success, correlations between IQ and indices of job success are significantly lower. Thorndike and Hagen state that the correlations between lQ and success in job training programs are in the .40 to .50 range, and correlations between IQ and various criteria of job proficiency average around .20. In occupations in which there is a marked restriction of the range with respect to IQ, such as those requiring graduate degrees, one could expect even lower predictive validity for IQ tests.
Thus, one could make a strong case for the elimination or deemphasis of IQ tests in the identification of the gifted students if the national resources approach is a valid one. I think one can argue successfully, however, that this is not a proper basis for programs for the gifted. One could claim that productivity or eminence is not the most desirable criterion for giftedness. One could also point out that it is naive from the standpoint of developmental psychology to expect children who will become gifted adults to exhibit as children the same traits that they will exhibit as adults. Moreover, one could assert that we should be concerned more with what children need now while they are in school than with what they might become one, two, or three decades hence. In addition, one could argue that there is no guarantee that the traits that made yesterday's eminent adults great will be the ones required to become an innovator in tomorrow's radically different world (and further that the very notion of using yesterday's information to predict who will become an innovator, i.e., an intellectual revolutionary, is a questionable one).
These and other objections could be launched against the national-resources approach. However, the most basic and cogent argument is that the approach is ineffectual; it just does not work, ironically, the best statement of this argument is made not by someone within the field but by a critic of special programs for the gifted, Writing in the fall, 1985, Teachers College Record, Barry Bull concludes, after reviewing the relevant research, that "it is not at all clear that those who as adults significantly shape our culture share any especially salient characteristics as children" (p. 4). He goes on to say that "we do not currently have any especially well founded techniques for identifying the eminent while they are still children" (p. 4).
To those who would presume to specify "the" constituents of future giftedness, Bull responds that:
If Bull's assertion that we cannot accurately identify in today's children the harbingers of tomorrow's productive geniuses is true, as I believe it is, does this sound the death knell for special programs for the gifted? I do not think so because we are not bound by Bull's primary assumption that the national-resources approach is the best rationale for such programs.
The special-education approach. The alternative to the national resources approach is what is I call the "special education approach." This rationale is the save one used to justify special education for the handicapped children: there is an established precedent, arising from our belief in each child's right to an appropriate public education, for the substantial curricular modifications for children who exhibit exceptionality by virtue of personal characteristics that affect their ability to think, learn, and produce in a school setting. Just as children with visual impairments or information processing deficits are recognized as exceptional, so should children who have greatly enhanced academic ability. For these children, too, the regular curriculum is Insufficient; they also are in danger of suffering developmental deficits if left to fend for themselves in the regular classroom.
The implications of this view loom large in the practice of education for the gifted. First, this means that "gifted education" is special education. Second, the school, not some nebulous future, should be the focus of our concern. Third, we have to define "giftedness" (since we are more or less stuck with the unfortunate term) in terms of exceptionality that affects school success; for educators, giftedness should for the most part mean academic and intellectual giftedness. Fourth, identification should entail the search for those children who, given the proper educational environment, could develop to the highest degree their learning, thinking, and productive abilities and who are at risk without such an environment. Although we may not be able to predict accurately which children will become eminent adults in the uncertain world of tomorrow, we can assess with sufficient accuracy which children are not receiving, the education they deserve because their abilities; are not being challenged in the regular classroom. There are other important implications of this approach (especially curricular ones), but I will stop here because this is where IQ tests come back into the picture.
The Proper Role of IQ Tests in Programs for the Gifted. It is well known that IQ tests are good predictors of academic success. Whatever they measure, reified or not (Gould, 1981), something is generated by the tests that is very useful in selecting children for programs for the academically and intellectually gifted in the schools. In fact, many (e.g., Gallagher, 1966: Hagen, 1980;.Pegnato & Birch, 1959) assert that such tests constitute the best single identifier. To eschew the use of IQ tests for this purpose is a highly questionable practice. If we are looking for students high in academic ability or potential or for students high in that aspect of intelligence required for the acquisition and processing of knowledge, we cannot conscientiously avoid the use of IQ tests.
But what about the abuses of IQ tests mentioned above? Do they not have a serious enough threat to the validity of the identification process and to our sense of justice to preclude the use of these instruments? I think not, and thus the reference to babies and bathwater in the title of this paper. IQ tests, like most things wrought by humans, can be used for good or for ill. By proscribing the use of IQ tests, we would be cutting ourselves off from a possible source of valuable information about children while doing nothing of substance to address the underlying problem, which resides with the abusers, not with the instrument of abuse. Let me make some suggestions for throwing out the bathwater while holding onto the baby.
The first and most obvious recommendation is not to rely on IQ tests alone. Tests and other procedures used for identifying gifted students are not "criteria" but sources of information for making placement decisions. (This is why the frequently encountered phrase "multiple-criterion identification procedure" is inappropriate.) A child is not gifted because he or she achieves a high score on a test; a high score on a test is one indication that a child might be gifted. When school personnel are faced with the prospect of identifying gifted children (or, more accurately, with the task, of placing children into classes known as "gifted programs"), they need all the information they can get. In most cases, IQ tests can readily supply the sort of information in which they should be interested. However, the tests are far from perfectly valid. The data they generate should be used in conjunction with data from other sources.
While I am in the business of giving advice, let me caution against the temptation of combining data from various sources into a single composite index as is clone on most matrices. This obscures information by combining disparate data into a meaningless apples and oranges "giftedness index" that is psychometrically uninterpretable. Each item of information should be looked at separately so that its meaning is not lost. This cannot be done when, for example, IQ, achievement test scores, teacher recommendations, and so forth are added together.
Second, be wary of using IQ's, especially IQ's derived from group tests, for making fine distinctions. It is unfortunately not uncommon for school personnel to admit children into a candidate pool or a program itself on the basis of a score on an IQ test. Any school district that makes an operational distinction between, say, an IQ of 134 and one of 135 is playing a guessing game disguised as psychology. The standard error on IQ tests, especially group tests, is such that one cannot conclude that there is any real difference between the aptitude of a child with an IQ of 134 and that of a child with an IQ of 135. This may seem like an obvious caveat, but its violation is common practice.
Third, be aware of the fact that IQ tests are very sensitive to racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences. Make the assumption, the only logically and morally defensible one, that giftedness is found to equal degrees in all segments of our population. Then make certain that your program reflects this fact. If this reads as if I am arguing for quotas, so be it. By whatever label, this is preferable to the situation, all too familiar, in which a school district has a significant minority population overall but a negligible one in its gifted program.
Those opposing affirmative action assert that this involves applying different standards to different groups and is tantamount to preferential treatment. However, as I argue above, the tests are not the standards: exceptionality of the sort that requires a more challenging program is the standard. The tests and other identification instruments are simply methods for gathering information I order to see if the standard obtains a given case. One must use the best sources of information available for every child. For some children, IQ tests tell us what we need to know quite well; for others the ratio of signal to noise is much lower. In these latter cases, we are not justified in excluding children from programs simply because one source of information used to assess the desirability of their placement is contaminated with information about the society in which we live.
Fourth, use the test for purposes of inclusion, not exclusion. Let me describe how this is done in one school. The Center for the Study and Education of the Gifted at, Teachers College operates a program, the Hollingworth Preschool, for intellectually precocious three and four year oIds. In choosing children for this program, it is necessary to select a few students from a large pool of very bright children whose tender years create a serious problem with respect to the reliability and thus the validity; of most tests and questionnaires. Individually administered IQ tests play a role in this selection process in the following manner. For a child who does well on the test (for example, by scoring three standard deviations above the mean), the test score is taken more or less at face value. We have not yet figured out how to explain away such a result; chance and "overachievement" appear to us to be rather feeble explanations.
However, for the child whose score is not in this range (although we are almost invariably dealing with children whose scores are significantly above-average), the IQ is simply ignored. There are many plausible explanations for a less-than-stratospheric score when the testee is 30 months old (including, in our experience, a child who was frightened by an examiner with a beard). Since in selecting students for this program test scores carry less weight than our observations of the children as they work in small groups with the teacher in the classroom, no child is penalized for a test score that is below the median for our group (which is usually in the 150's). However, the scores that we do trust are not discarded simply because we are suspicious of the scores of other children. With children this young, we do not have the luxury of throwing away any valuable information, but we only use l the scores when they advance the child's cause, not when they fail to do so.
Although we have yet to analyze the data formally, it may be of interest that in our three years of experience with this program, no child with a very high score has failed to do well in the school. There have been no false positives thus far. We have, however, had quite a few false negatives, children whose IQ's were in the 110 to 125 range who revealed remarkable ability where we observed them working with the teacher as part of our selection process. In the cases in which these children were admitted to our school and tested, at a later date for admission to other programs, there were significant increments in their scores beyond what would be expected as the result of a testing effect (Campbell & Stanley, 1983).
What I am advocating is using information provided by IQ tests when it reflects well on children and ignoring it when it does not, especially when it is contradicted by other data. The danger of false negatives is a real one; I suspect that the danger of false positives is not.
Finally, I would recommend that one try, as I have in this paper to avoid the term "intelligence test." There is good reason to believe that these tests measure only a part or a correlate of intelligence as it is defined explicitly or implicitly (Steinberg & Powell, 1981) by psychologists and lay persons. One could employ the label designation, or "test of academic aptitude," which is reasonably descriptive of the latent trait being assessed. The words "intelligence test" are both inaccurate and potentially inflammatory; there is no reason to use them in this context.
ConclusionI have endeavored in this paper to make a case for the use of IQ tests in programs for gifted students. In part, my argument rests on a conception of programs for the gifted as programs of special education for children exceptional by virtue of high ability or potential that affects their current school experience. I assert above that this present educational need, and not somebody's guess as to a child's likelihood of worldly success in what promises to be a radically different future, should be the sole reason for placing a child in a program for the gifted.
My argument is also a practical one. I believe that IQ tests are capable of providing information that is useful in many situations in which school personnel must make decisions about the placement of children into programs for gifted students. The information is admittedly imperfect, as is the case with information derived from most sources. And it is sadly true that information from IQ tests has been misused in the past to the serious detriment of some children. However, I believe it is possible to use the information wisely and to avoid the abuses, just as I believe that those who are so inclined will continue to hold some children down with or without the excuse of IQ tests. The IQ test is not the best tool for every job, but it is sometimes a useful tool. We should have it at our disposal when we need it.
Finally, my argument is based on a belief that IQ tests can be used to correct as well as to perpetrate injustices. Since my own school days, I have known children who possess extremely high intellectual ability, and often a wealth of self-taught knowledge and skills, who do not fit well into the educational system as it expresses itself in the typical heterogeneous classroom. These children -- call them underachievers, nonconformists, or whatever -- are the ones who in my opinion most critically need special classes for the gifted. However, more often than not, they lack the high grade point averages, the favorable teacher recommendations, and the stereotypical list of traits that most school personnel would like to see in children whom they deign to label "gifted." Sometimes; the only indication that the sullen, disaffected child in the back row is gifted is a score on an IQ test.
Many recent conceptions of giftedness seem to be predicated on the meek assumption that we are better off identifying as gifted only those well motivated children who are already primed for success and who appear to be well on the road to probable adult eminence. I am concerned that by eliminating the IQ tests from our tool box we will end up only with these polite, "task-committed" strivers in programs for the gifted. Children of this type may well require special education. But I, for one, would like to see some innovative thinkers and intellectuals in these programs along with the future yuppies. I fear, however, that without the benefit of the IQ tests, we run the risk of missing these children altogether.
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Permission to reprint this article was granted by James H. Borland and Roeper Review.
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