Education Commentary

Conflicting Ideas on the Banning of Intelligence Tests: ‘Simplistic and Futile’ Effort To Solve Complex Problem

By Wilson R. Riles — February 11, 1987 4 min read

The question has frequently been raised as to why I, as California’s superintendent of public instruction during the 1970’s, chose to defend against a suit (Larry P. et al. v. Wilson Riles, State Board of Education et al.) to ban the use of I.Q. tests that presumably resulted in the mislabeling of black students as mentally retarded. (See Education Week, Nov. 12, 1986.) The state board of education chose not to challenge the suit. The political climate was such that a decision not to defend would have been the safest course. Indeed, few would expect a superintendent who was himself black to oppose such a suit.

In spite of advice to the contrary, I chose to defend against the suit because I felt then, as I do now, that banning the use of I.Q. tests for blacks and allowing their use by everyone else was not only discriminatory in itself, but would prove to be a simplistic and futile effort to solve a complex and aggravating problem that we were attempting to address by other means.

Not only am I unconvinced that the problem of the appropriate assignment of black students will be addressed by the ruling, which prohibits the use of I.Q. tests in the assessment of black pupils who have been referred for special-education purposes, I am of the opinion that the problem may be exacerbated and result in increased misplacement and, in some cases, no placement at all. Thus, many handicapped black children will be denied any special program whatsoever to meet their needs.

Now, I’m not so naive as to believe that there has not been, and probably continues to be, a pattern of misassignments resulting in the overrepresentation of blacks in classes for the educable mentally retarded. I can cite more injustices than most. I know of a case in which the daughter of a friend of mine, a successful black lawyer, was placed in a class for “slow” learners in a junior high school even though she had been designated as “gifted” in the elementary school from which she transferred. This student had not been given a standardized test in the junior high school; she had been misassigned on the basis of teacher judgment.

Neither am I prepared to defend the objectivity of I.Q. tests as the sole measure of determining retardation. In my view, no test is comprehensive enough in itself for one to make a sweeping judgment about an individual’s potential. The problem is that tests are sometimes misused. But, if you ban the use of the I.Q. test because it has been , misused, the same logic follows for any other test. And if all tests are banned, we would be left. only with the judgment of the teacher, which in many cases is more insensitive and prejudicial than the tests themselves.

Nor do I believe in quotas when it comes to addressing the individual needs of students. In 1977-78, Irvine Unified School District, with 11,404 pupils, had a total E.M.R. enrollment of nine, including one black student.

But since the formula--designed as part of the court’s injunctive relief--allowed for no black students, that one black student caused an overrepresentation of blacks. I have no way of knowing whether that one student had been properly placed or not. But if he was, the quota system resulted in denying the student services to which he was entitled.

When ethnic statistics are used, the assumption is frequently made that ethnic minorities are homogeneous. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, about one-third of blacks in the United States have now attained middle-class status. Another third can be characterized as the “working poor,” whose status is in jeopardy. Another third are the “underclass,” beset with every possible social problem and trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.

No doubt, the marginal group and the underclass would be improperly diagnosed through the sole use of an I.Q. test or, for that matter, any other middleclass- oriented testing instrument. But middle-class blacks do as well as other middle-class groups on such tests.

Frequently overlooked is the white underclass. When compared with the total white population, they are a smaller proportion of their group than the proportion of blacks in the underclass compared with the total black population. Nevertheless, the total number of under class whites exceeds that of underclass blacks, and they do as poorly as do blacks on standardized tests.

If the problem is to be solved, it is my view that a wide range of evaluative criteria must be used, including tests administered by sensitive, well-trained professionals who are aware of the complexities of class and cultural differences among students.

We were able to make a beginning in that direction when we instituted California’s Master Plan for Special Education. Among our goals were to assure that each student be individually evaluated and to develop a program to meet the child’s individual needs. Unless progress is made in that direction, I am afraid that the predicament of misassigned students will remain despite the good intentions of Judge Robert F. Peckham when he made his landmark ruling in Larry P. v. Wilson Riles.

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 1987 edition of Education Week