Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Smarty pants

As children and teenagers, my siblings and I all underwent multiple batteries of tests -- all the standardized tests for public schools in the states of California and Utah and the college aptitude tests for future university attendance, but also a number of specialized tests supposedly designed to measure our intelligence. We all fared well on these tests. But some of my siblings received sufficiently high scores to gain access to the schools' gifted programs, while others did not. This disparity led to a sense, particularly among those siblings who didn't make it into the gifted program, of intellectual haves and have-nots in our family -- the belief that some of us were brilliant, and others merely of average intelligence.

And I'm going to tell you that it was all poppycock.

Without going into insane depth on the subject, the standardized IQ test is supposed to measure an individual's intelligence -- his or her ability to think and reason.  It's meant to be statistically reliable -- that is, although your test scores may change by a point or two up or down, you are generally supposed to get the same score over time. But I've noticed that my own test scores vary by as much as ten points, depending on the type of test administered, my age, the time of day the test was given, and a host of other factors which are not supposed to affect final scores on IQ tests. I've therefore come to the conclusion that most IQ tests do not actually assess intelligence. What they do measure is an individual's ability to navigate a standardized test successfully.

I'm very good at taking tests. Even going into a subject "blind," I can usually suss out multiple-choice answers by process of elimination and determine answers to certain questions based on facts given in other parts of the test. I don't have particularly strong testing anxiety, I pace myself, I try to use logic and knowledge of Latin root words to figure things out, and I skip over questions if they weigh me down too long, going back to focus on them later if I have more time. In other words, if I have even a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, I can usually get at least a respectable test score. And because I'm good at taking tests, it follows that I'm also good at taking IQ tests. My average scores don't put me into the "Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius" range, but they're good enough that I could probably qualify for Mensa membership. (I don't want to, because to my mind Mensa is less about seeking after the good of humanity and more about masturbatory self-congratulation, but that's fodder for a whole different post.)

As I see it, the problems with singling out kids for special educational treatment because they test in the gifted-to-genius range are: a) doing so engenders a strong sense of resentment in family groups, b) gifted children pick up the hint that high intelligence is key to their identity, making them afraid to fail for fear of losing who they are, c) many of the enrichment activities lavished on gifted children would be enjoyed just as much by those not considered gifted, and d) by the time most people reach adulthood, it doesn't make that much of a difference. The highest achievers in my family -- the ones who are making the most difference for good in the world -- were not the children who were selected for the gifted programs. Maybe they're the high achievers precisely because that early sense of disparity between siblings made them feel they had to prove themselves -- so they did it in spades. The so-called "smart" siblings have had a tendency to rest on their laurels, complacent in the knowledge that they didn't need to prove themselves to anyone, or afraid to take big risks because they feared failing and looking "dumb" in front of others. Being labeled as intelligent has, in some ways, held them back from achieving their full potential.

This thing shouldn't determine anyone's self-worth.
True intelligence is something far more than an arbitrary number on a Scantron sheet. It is not measured by standardized tests as much as it is measured by individual wisdom and judgement, the ability to make course corrections and learn from one's mistakes. In the end, you don't really need to be super-smart; all you really need is to be smart enough. From that point, hard work and application cover the rest.

1 comment:

Mark and Kiss said...

Fabulous! Well said! I agree. I worry about this with my kids. They are all super smart, sweet kiddos. But one out of the three oldest have tested into the gifted program. Even though they are smart, because they aren't the smartest, they feel inadequate or dumb...very sad. Last week, my two middle schoolers applied to participate in the Brain Bowl, one made it on the team, one didn't, the one who didn't was humiliated he said. My heart broke for him.