The Problem With Standardized Tests

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains why traditional metrics of intelligence are misguided.

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Standardized tests are commonly used to measure intelligence and to assign labels indicative of a student's future prospects. But in "Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined," cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman combines recent research and personal anecdotes to show that traditional metrics of intelligence are misguided and may even be detrimental to learning and development. Kaufman recently spoke with U.S. News about his own experience with being labeled in school, what he says would be a more productive approach, and how schools can better serve all students. Excerpts:

How do we measure intelligence now?

We equate high intelligence with giftedness, and we use standardized metrics like tests and IQ scores as the most predominant method of testing giftedness.

What's wrong with this approach?

It's not that I'm anti-IQ or anti-standardized tests, but I am against standardizing minds and ignoring the fact that there are multiple paths to the same outcome and that engagement is an extremely important aspect of the equation. What I was doing in this book is I was going through lots of different kinds of minds, trying to understand the way they think, and realizing that most people with brain disabilities, when you inspire them or you engage with something that's personally meaningful for them, not external goals from the teacher, they do transform in lots of different ways. They go from appearing ungifted to quite gifted.

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Did these labels impact you?

In the first three years of my life, I got 21 ear infections, and I developed a learning disability called Central Auditory Processing Disorder, which led me to always be a few moments behind in processing auditory input. And I was in special education for this, and I needed a couple years to catch up. I did catch up, and I was definitely ready for more intellectual challenges, but this label just kept following me around, and it was really hard for me to fight my way out of the label till a teacher in ninth grade took me aside and questioned why I was still there. And just her believing in me really transformed me, and I think I came alive for the first time. I went from getting Ds and Cs to straight As and eventually got a Yale Ph.D.

But along the way, through every step of the process, which I talk about in the book, I had to find an alternative path to explain to people what I was intellectually capable of because standardized testing wasn't the best format for me to express that. And finally, when I started studying this stuff scientifically, it was so fascinating to me just how many people were falling between the cracks, how many people had intellectual potential but weren't able to express it in our current standardized metric.

What would be a better approach?

What I want to do is shift the analysis from individual differences and comparing people to a developmental level of analysis where we bring the whole person back into the picture. And that person is only comparing their past selves and their future selves, their future dreams. And so we take every child's dreams seriously, and without prejudgement we allow them, and give them the resources they need. I don't think school's in the business of judging, so I really want to see this shift from evaluation to inspiration.

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Would this approach require a vastly different education system?

It really would. It would require a reconceptualization of the purpose of education. I think, backed up by the latest developmental psychology research, there are clear conditions that we know are conducive to human flourishing – high self esteem, inspiration – that allow people to feel motivated. I also talk a lot about hope. It's a very underappreciated concept, especially in intelligence research. What I've shown is that when people have the will to get places and they can have the strategies and pathways and alternative routes to get where they want, they are very much higher in hope and that has a greater predictive value even for academic success. There's one study that shows that hope is a better predictor of law school performance than the LSAT test. It's crazy.