The idea that such a determination could be made for a young child on the basis of a test is rather disturbing considering that the SAT and ACT tests that graduating high school seniors take are not all that good at predicting college success. Could it be that we have mistakenly placed too much faith in the products of educational marketers? Could it also be that children are malleable, complex entities whose attributes cannot be assessed by merely inserting a dipstick?
Paul Tough, in his excellent book How Children Succeed, suggests that assessing a child’s capabilities is not a simple task.
The basis for most testing of children is the belief that cognitive capabilities have already been established and they are measurable. To address that issue, Tough reports on what is referred to as the M&M candy study. Back in the 1960s a researcher named Calvin Edlund collected a group children aged five to seven from mostly lower economic classes.
Should we be surprised that the test performance of children depends on some mixture of capability and motivation? Must we conclude that the intelligence test has an uncertainty of at least 12 points? Can we not tell the difference between above average and below average intelligence?
Tough also alerts us to another test-confounding phenomenon: stereotype threat.
If you tell a black student that a test is designed to measure intellectual capability and cause him to be reminded that some believe blacks are less intelligent than whites, he will tend to do less well on the test than the black student who was not so prompted. If a girl is reminded that girls are not expected to be as good at math as boys, then she will tend to do less well than if she had not been prompted it that manner.
The notion that prejudice can become prophecy is truly disturbing.
An article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times elaborates on the notion that intelligence and social context are intertwined.
"It’s just one example of the powerful influence that social factors can have on intelligence. As parents, teachers and students settle into the school year, this work should prompt us to think about intelligence not as a ‘lump of something that’s in our heads,’ as the psychologist Joshua Aronson puts it, but as ‘a transaction among people’."
"The evolving literature on stereotype threat shows that performance is always social in nature. Even alone in an exam room, we hear a chorus of voices appraising, evaluating, passing judgment. And as social creatures, humans are strongly affected by what these voices say."
Fear of confirming a stereotype is not the only social issue that can affect test performance.
"The participants then took another test. Those who had been told they would be loveless and friendless in the future answered significantly fewer questions correctly than on the earlier test."
If concern about social exclusion can render one less "intelligent," what about the physical fear that children living in high crime areas or in dysfunctional families experience?
"In a study conducted on the troubled South Side of Chicago, for example, students whose neighborhoods had been the site of a homicide within the previous two weeks scored half a standard deviation lower on a test of intelligence."
Paul concludes with some advice for how we should treat our children in our schools.
This advice from Paul may seem a bit extreme given that what she suggests is counter to all current practices that have taken root in our education system. However, we do have an example of a school system that follows exactly the path Paul recommends. It is an important example because it is a school system that the United States recognizes as providing more successful educational outcomes.
Whenever comparison tests of math and science proficiency between students from a variety of countries are taken, Finland’s students perform among the best, while the United States’ students end up in the middle of the pack.
Finland’s children receive education in non-cognitive skills such as curiosity, self-control, self-confidence, and conscientiousness while learning how to socialize with other children. This process goes on until age seven. It is only at that age that they begin to introduce academic subjects such as math and reading. Their children are never given standardized tests before they reach an age equivalent to our high school. And their children are never separated into groups labeled fast learners and slow learners.
There appear to be a number of ways to produce good academic results. Perhaps we should try one.
The current dependence on testing to justify all things is foolish and dangerous. The notion that all learning depends on the quality of the teacher, and the teacher’s competence can be measured by student test results, ignores the role of the student in the process. Teachers can teach, but students must do the learning. As Paul Tough recommends, we should focus more on providing the students with both the cognitive and non-cognitive skills they need to succeed rather playing a blame game with teachers and focusing entirely on cognitive skills.