Thursday, December 11, 2003

IQ Tests For College?

Britain has a long history of administering standardized tests to its grammar school students (what we would call "public school"). Testing is administered at 7, 11 and 14 in maths, science and English. At age 16, students take the "O-Level" test, now officially called the "General Certificate of Seconary Education Examination" (GCSE). Over the next two years, students who are on an academic track study toward their "A Level" examinations, which play a significant role in determining which college they may attend.

In what is likely to be a controvercial suggestion, researchers suggest that it would be more accurate, and more fair, to base university admissions on IQ test results instead of A-levels. The researchers argue that IQ tests will be more fair for working class students "whose A-level results may have suffered because of poor schooling - an even chance of entering university", and that a 90-minute IQ-style test administered to a set of students two years ago "were a better predictor of success than A-levels or interviews".

Obviously, Britain has advantages for implementing such a system, including the fact that its universities enjoy enormous public funding, the history of national exams for college entry, and its relative ethnic homogeneity as compared to the United States, where a "one size fits all" national IQ test would be challenged on the basis of geographic and ethnic biases. Arguably, the United States already uses the IQ test scheme, given that portions of college aptitude tests often closely resemble portions of IQ tests - not full-spectrum IQ tests, but those portions believed most relevant to the course of study.

It is worth noting that you study for intelligence and aptitude tests, just as you can study for the "A-levels". The difference, perhaps, is that it is easier to study for the aptitude test. As companies in the U.S. have demonstrated, a focused course of study can significantly improve an applicant's scores on tests like the SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, and other such tests. And there remains an economic advantage - the "working class" students who would be the intended beneficiaries of a change in the British system would be less likely to be able to afford such test preparation.

But perhaps the more interesting questions are more philosophical. For most, "success" in college means first the successful completion of a degree program, and second the achievement of good grades. Presumably the children of the wealthy, who ostensibly have an advantage on the A-levels, are completing their degree programs, so it seems reasonable to assume that the IQ test is better associated with good grades than with degree completion.

I recently spoke with a college professor about issues of intelligence and college. His experience suggested to him that college can change the way you think, and can provide you with a much greater base of information upon which to make your decisions, but it doesn't make you smarter. (That is in no way a suggestion that the "less smart" can't derive significant benefits from a college education.) He also suggested that the researchers were missing the mark - that perhaps the question they should be asking is not "how well do the students do in college", but "how well do the students do after college, and how does their performance in college correlate to real-world success?" Many of the most successful people, it seems, didn't fare all that well in college (and, in many cases, probably would score in the "average" range on IQ tests.) Many people with high IQ's and great college grades perform in a manner that some would say is "below their potential", or which others might say is more in accord with their interests than with maximizing financial or career success.

Also, while those advocating reform of the British system could benefit from looking at what works (and doesn't work) in our university system, we could benefit from examining what the British have done. Our high schools underserve a great many students - both granting diplomas to students whose skill sets are considerably below what should justify a high school diploma, and in some cases failing to offer an environment conducive to learning. The typical "reform" is to institute standardized test after standardized test in a seemingly futile quest to "raise school quality". While music and art programs are slashed, expensive sports programs are justified on the claim that they entice certain kids to stay in school (when they would otherwise drop out). In our culture of "everybody passes", it appears to be virtually impossible for a high school student who attends class on a reasonably consistent basis and takes the required examinations to fail a class.

When we hear politicians complaining that high school students are being issued "meaningless" diplomas, perhaps the problem is less with the diploma and more with our fear of being "elitist". Perhaps the kids who supposedly can only be enticed to sit through classes for the reward of being on the football team would be better served by an education which focuses on practical, vocational skills. Is it more "elitist" to pretend that everybody is college material and that everybody should go to a university - or to recognize that not everybody is university material, that not everybody wants to go to a university, and that by incorporating a significant vocational element into the last two years of high school for those who want it, we can do a great deal both to improve their preparedness for the job market upon graduation, and provide a better learning environment for the kids who anticipate pursuing higher education.

The unfortunate trend in this nation seems to be to transform the senior year of high school into a joke - something you attend because you have to, but which has no real academic significance. Perhaps tracking college-bound kids into a more academic track could reverse that unfortunate trend. It is painful to learn that the "it's cool to be dumb" culture of many high schools is now affecting colleges. Is that really the direction we want our nation's public education system to head?


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