Education Opinion

Conflicting Ideas on the Banning of Intelligence Tests: Though Tests Are Flawed, They Remain a Useful Tool

By Loeb Aronin — February 11, 1987 3 min read

Many psychologists are angered by the decision to ban I.Q. tests for all black students in California. In one fell swoop, the state courts and the state department of education have said, in essence, that the I.Q. test serves no useful purpose in the assessment of black students. Although I recognize that there are biases in the standardizations of I.Q. tests when it comes to some populations, the same can be said for all standardized tests. However, skilled, well-trained school psychologists are aware of such problems and make allowances for them when interpreting test results.

I believe that test bias is related more to socioeconomic factors than to ethnicity. The premise that there are no black students for whom standardized tests are appropriate is difficult to support. I am aware that students in large urban areas from poor backgrounds have not had social or educational opportunities comparable to the standardization populations of most I.Q. tests.

However, many school psychologists have found it valuable to use, as an alternative procedure, the results of various subtests to obtain clues to a student’s potential ability or areas of possible disability. I believe that most psychologists have used assessment results in a similar, responsible manner. In a significant number of instances, teachers have been convinced, on the basis of subtest scores and other supporting data, that a student was not mentally retarded.

Therefore, it is with no little concern that I view the settlement between the plaintiffs and the state department of education in the Larry P. case. It removes from our hands a tool that we have found valuable in developing interventions for students and in providing data to assist us with determining whether or not a student meets federal and state eligibility standards for receiving special education.

Admittedly, our tools are flawed. However, as in the medical profession, any test or intervention, in addition to having positive benefits to the client, also has its risks. It is for this reason that competent psychologists use a number of instruments and procedures to corroborate their results. Federal law indicates that no single procedure may be used as the sole criterion to make an educational decision about a student. It is my opinion that I.Q. tests, even with their shortcomings, are still the most useful and reliable tools we have for estimating a student’s academic potential.

Alternative procedures have been recommended to replace I.Q. tests when evaluating black children. Although such procedures are valuable for assessing students for whom scores on I.Q. tests may not be valid, they do not measure the same factors that I.Q. tests measure. In fact, using alternative measures on the assumption that they are tests of ability, in the same sense that I.Q. tests are, may violate statutes requiring that tests be validated for the specific purpose for which they are used.

In light of the fact that one component of the federal criteria for identifying students with specific learning disabilities requires the determination that a severe discrepancy exists between intellectual ability and achievement, the state department of education’s agreement to bar the use of I.Q. tests for all black students may violate the rights of the state’s black students for whom I.Q. tests may be valid.

Although I respect the opinions of the many black psychologists and others who hail the settlement as providing protection for black students, I fear that a backlash against I.Q. tests could result in “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” and some black students could thereby be denied appropriate educational services.

It will be incumbent on all of us to see that this does not happen. Whatever strategies we use for assessing students need to be reliable and valid, and must selected because they introduce the least amount of bias.

We need to hold to the use of objective assessment data when making decisions about students.

My fear is that by using less reliable and less valid data, the door will be opened for making political decisions about the educational needs of students.

Pressures may be brought to bear to place students in special education because somebody thinks it will be “good” for them, or they will be denied services because it costs too much.

I am deeply concerned that there are plans within the California Department of Education to use the Larry P. settlement to ban I.Q. tests for all students and to restructure the delivery of special-education services so that they will serve only the most handicapped.

I believe that the banning of I.Q. tests for black students makes the whole assessment process for all students infinitely more complex.

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