Assessment Opinion

IQ Testing in Historical Perspective

By Diane Ravitch — May 20, 2008 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deborah,

When I first read Murray and Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve,” I was unpersuaded. They argued on behalf of the heritability of IQ and the linkage between race and education. Richard Herrnstein has since died, but Charles Murray continues to write about the immutability of inherited intelligence and the futility of any efforts to improve intelligence by education.

I was not persuaded then by their claims; I am still not persuaded. I do not understand how they could be so certain about how much of intelligence is genetic and how much is environmental. Is it 40 percent genetic and 60 percent environmental? Or the other way around? Or, is it 30-70 or 70-30? Or is it some other set of numbers? 20-80? 80-20? How could they be so sure that their numbers are just right? Are the ratios the same for everyone? Or not? It is not as if anyone could dissect brains in autopsies and find the answer.

One reason I was skeptical was my own family experience. I am one of eight children. We all had exactly the same parents and the same grandparents. Yet our school smarts and coping skills varied widely, probably as much as the variation among randomly selected people. Based on what I knew from my own life, I was not willing to concede that heredity and genetics predetermined one’s intelligence and life chances. If Murray and Herrnstein’s arguments were wrong in my family, I was willing to bet they were wrong in lots of other families as well.

When I wrote “Left Back,” I devoted a chapter to the huge influence of IQ testing on American schools. I called the chapter “IQ Testing: ‘This Brutal Pessimism.’” (See pp. 132-133). The subtitle of the chapter was a direct quote from Alfred Binet, one of the earliest designers of mental tests. In Binet’s own words, he disagreed with those who “assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism.”

Binet was wiser than many of those who followed in his footsteps. He was skeptical of precise numerical descriptions of intelligence. After he and a colleague devised the first functional intelligence test, they concluded that the fundamental characteristic of intelligence is judgment, “otherwise known as good sense, practical sense, initiative, or the faculty of adapting oneself.” Who today would claim that IQ tests are the best measures of these qualities?

Contra Murray, Binet believed that children’s intelligence could be improved. By “practice, enthusiasm, and especially with method one can succeed in increasing one’s attention, memory, judgment, and in becoming literally more intelligent than one was before.” Binet developed exercises that he called “mental orthopedics” to demonstrate that the intellectual level of any child could be increased. Charles Murray would do well to read Binet.

During World War I, some of America’s most prominent psychologists designed intelligence tests to enable the Army to select officers from the millions of men who were inducted for military service. Later analyses of the test scores showed very large differences among racial and ethnic groups. The highest scores went to recruits who were native-born and of northern European background, while the lowest scores went to those who were foreign-born, of southern and eastern European background, and black.

Carl C. Brigham, a Princeton psychologist who helped to develop the Army tests, wrote a book called “A Study of American Intelligence,” in which he said that the test scores showed the danger of continued immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Brigham identified what he called three distinct European races: the Nordics, the Alpines, and the Mediterraneans. Of the three, the Nordics (northern Europeans) were supposedly the superior “race,” and this group got the highest IQ scores on the Army tests. (Brigham, incidentally, designed the original Scholastic Aptitude Tests in the late 1920s, which eventually displaced the College Boards in 1941.)

One of my intellectual heroes, William Chandler Bagleyof Teachers College, punched holes in the theories of the IQ testers. He was literally the only prominent psychologist who took on the leaders of his field. Bagley wrote critical articles and a book (“Determinism in Education”) in which he said that the IQ tests were a threat to democracy because they were being used to close the doors of educational opportunity to large numbers of people. Bagley showed that the groups that had the highest scores on the Army tests were those who had had the greatest educational opportunities. In a coup de grace, he pointed out that the IQ scores of literate northern blacks were higher than those of literate whites in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Since southern whites were the purest “Nordic stock” in the country, Bagley said that Brigham would have to acknowledge that the test scores were the result of education, not racial inheritance.

All the best minds of the 1920s were in favor of IQ testing, and Bagley soon became a figure of derision among the leading progressives because of his stubborn belief in the power of education to improve intelligence.

I encourage readers who want to learn more about Bagley to read a terrific biography of him: Wesley Null’s “A Disciplined Progressive Educator.” Wes, who is a historian of education at Baylor University, also wrote a brilliant biography of Isaac Kandel, another great and (now) little-known giant of American education, titled “Peerless Educator: The Life and Work of Isaac Leon Kandel.” This biography was just reviewed by E.D. Hirsch Jr., in Education Next, and it is well worth reading. A couple of years ago, Wes and I co-edited a collection of essays called “Forgotten Heroes of American Education.” Deb, I think you would enjoy it.

As for Richard Rothstein’s contention that we could do more to raise test scores by providing good medical care than by test-prepping: I think that is the wrong issue and the wrong choice. We should have good medical care for all. We should have good education for all. Test-prepping is not good education.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.