Education Opinion

Conflicting Ideas on the Banning of Intelligence Tests: The “Evidence for Benefits’ Of Tests Simply Not There

By Asa G. Hilliard III — February 11, 1987 3 min read

Judge Robert F. Peckham’s 1979 formal opinion on Larry P. v. Wilson Riles suggested that while I.Q. testing of black students was the central matter before the court, more fundamental issues were involved. Indeed, he wrote that the trial had left him with deep concerns about the validity of teaching in special education, and about the general philosophy of education that supported professional practices leading to such inequities as the disproportionate placement of African American children in classes for the educable mentally retarded. He hoped that his ban on the use of I.Q. tests would be a way to stimulate professional educators and psychologists to tackle these fundamental problems, and not merely the problem of valid testing.

Despite the state board of education’s Dec. 3, 1986 directive reconfirming and fully implementing the court’s order, the root problem in this matter remains unresolved. Simply put, the problem was the absence of instructional validity, which refers to the nature of, or to the existence of, links between testing, assessment, placement, treatment, and instructional outcomes. In other words, to what extent is this whole matrix of professional activities beneficial to students? I raise this question in light of the empirical evidence on the absence of positive effects of tracking and special education.

Generally speaking, we have little or no evidence that this whole process is beneficial to students. Part of what is involved here are two competing models for thinking about the reasons for low performances among students and about the capability of school-service providers to help students do better. I refer to one of these models as a custodial model. It carries the assumption that student capacity is fixed, that it is important to compare and rank students in order to decide on the type of custodial care in education that they should receive.

I refer to the other model as a remedial one. In this model, it is assumed that students’ cognition can be improved significantly and that the important information to gain from an assessment is not comparative rank among students, but a diagnostic description of impediments to full functioning--a diagnosis that can be linked meaningfully to valid remedial instruction. Both models can and must be evaluated by the same criterion of utility. Are students better off because of the special services we perform than they would be without them?

Clearly, much more is at stake here than I.Q. testing for black students. In fact, Judge Peckham’s extension of the ban on the use of I.Q. tests for any special-education reason might just as well have been applied to all students, regardless of race, since evidence for the benefits of I.Q. tests is not available for any student.

The value of professional services to children must be determined by the value of the results of those services. The mere faithful execution of traditional standardized testing, placement, and treatment practices is no longer a sufficient justification for their use.

I am not naive enough to believe that all problems will be solved merely because of this ban on I.Q. tests. In fact, new problems will surely emerge because of the ban.

The real question that remains is, will poorly served students have to take the tortuous route through the courts to gain relief from invalid and abusive professional practices, while the vast majority of service providers remain silent, or in a few cases opposed to valid remedies?

Or can students rely on service providers to “troubleshoot” the system, and to take actions that ensure that children benefit from our services?

There are necessary and meaningful roles for psychological-service providers who are linked to regular and special education in schools. But I.Q. testing is not one of those roles.

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