Reporter’s Notebook: Even the “father of IQ tests” thought the results weren’t written in stone

IQ tests created by French psychologist Alfred Binet in the early 20th century paved the way for widespread intelligence testing in American schools  — including of the youngest learners.

But Binet also had early doubts as to whether intelligence could be measured at all and he was adamant that his tests, adapted into the Stanford-Binet intelligence scales in the U.S., could not be used to determine how much progress an individual student was capable of making in the long term.

“I have often observed, to my regret, that a widespread prejudice exists with regard to the educability of intelligence,” Binet wrote in 1909. “The familiar proverb, ‘When one is stupid, it is for a long time’ seems to be accepted indiscriminately by teachers … [They] lose interest in students with low intelligence.”

I learned about Binet, and his ideas about how IQ tests should — and should not — be used in elementary schools while reporting a piece last month for The Hechinger Report and Slate on the debate over cognitive testing in school placement and psychology. In recent decades, more states and school districts have shifted in the direction of downplaying the role of intelligence testing in special education evaluations. Yet change isn’t happening fast enough for some educators and experts, who argue the tests should be used less frequently and more thoughtfully.

Binet’s interest in early childhood stemmed from watching his two young daughters develop and from observing firsthand the very different cognitive strengths and processes they brought to learning. He made his first attempt at crafting a formal assessment in 1905, when asked by French officials to devise a way to identify which students had intellectual disabilities and could benefit most from specialized support.

French officials asked for his help because they saw a need for something distinct from a medical doctor or a classroom teacher to help in diagnosing and supporting children with disabilities. In that sense, Binet was an early forerunner in the field of school psychology.

Many experts believe he was prescient on three main tensions and challenges that persist in the field today:

Binet wanted to avoid testing the quality of a child’s school and their exposure to books and learning at home.

“None of the tests in the original 1905 version assumed that the child could read or write,” wrote Derek Briggs in his 2021 book, “Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Measurement in the Human Sciences,” which has a chapter focused on Binet. His tests “were intended to be insensitive to information or skills that a child would have acquired through instruction.”

This effort to separate out innate intelligence from school-acquired knowledge remains a holy grail of contemporary intelligence testing, with test creators including Jack Naglieri, trying to assess “thinking” rather than “knowledge.”

Try a few questions yourself

Many psychologists believe that traditional intelligence tests too often measure what a child already knows, not how well they can think. Jack Naglieri, a psychologist and creator of cognitive assessments, offered examples of questions that try to assess thinking rather than measuring pre-existing knowledge. 

Click thru slideshows to see answers

Source: Jack Naglieri, emeritus professor, George Mason University

Binet held the conviction that intelligence was changeable with access to high quality schooling.

While he was aware that some children could be more easily helped than others, Binet likely would have opposed some contemporary policies or practices that steer kids away from academic instruction based on their IQ score, or indirectly withhold learning disability diagnoses — and the academic support that should come with it — to children with lower cognitive scores.

“The aim of his scale was to identify in order to help and improve, not to label in order to limit. Some children might be innately incapable of normal achievement, but all could improve with help,” wrote biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man.”

Ranking children within a group was not Binet’s goal.

Binet was more interested in what cognitive tests showed about an individual child’s strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. As such, biographers say he likely would have opposed gifted programs that cull students from the top percentiles of intelligence test scorers. “He would have greatly objected to using IQ tests to classify — first, second, third, fourth,” Briggs, based at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s College of Education, told me. “Binet was interested in the immediacy of what to do next for an individual student, particularly for those with some sort of need of support.”

This story about IQ tests was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

You may also like...