The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests

Whether you call a child "gifted" or "disabled," labels can influence future behavior in subtle and insidious ways.
Jim Young/Reuters

Scott Barry Kaufman knew he was different from his classmates. The evidence was overwhelming: he was about to enter the third grade for the second time, and he was subjected to beatings on the bathroom floor, doled out by bullies who regularly reminded him that he would never, ever be anything other than a failing third grader. As Kaufman recounts in a book released this spring, his family finally had his intelligence tested, and that afternoon with the school psychologist would change the course of his life.

"OK, well what if he discovers that I'm really stupid and I have to go to a really special school?" Mom sighs and does her best to alleviate my fears, but they are still there. I know what's at stake.

Kaufman, writing of his experience in Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness, may have thought he knew what was at stake when he visited that school psychologist for testing, but he would not fully grasp the influence that afternoon of testing would have on the trajectory of his life until much later. The psychologist who tested Kaufman concluded that he had a relatively low IQ, a score low enough to earn him the label "seriously learning disabled." On that basis, Kaufman was not sent to the elite private school his parents had been considering. Instead, he was sent to a school for children with learning disabilities. "My fate," Kaufman writes in the book, which came out in June, was "sealed by a single test."

When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as "seriously learning disabled," they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life. The reality of our educational system is that some children will be left behind; it's unrealistic to pretend otherwise. However, if our goal is to give each child at least the potential to succeed, we should take a moment to consider whether labeling students - particularly when those labels are the products of dubious science and flawed standards - is a bane or a boon to our children. We proclaim "seriously learning disabled," "gifted," "athlete," "not good at math," as if we have the power to see their lifetime developmental endpoint.

I've got to hide. I slump down in my seat and put my head down on the table. My heart beats fast. I feel anger, frustration, and anxiety. I start fighting back tears. But I accept my fate. After all, I wasn't born gifted and this means I will never be.

What no one bothered to tell the teachers and psychologists in Kaufman's school is that the measure of a child's intelligence is far more complicated than a quotient that can be represented in a single number. Furthermore, intelligence is not a data point that, once pinned down, stays put forever. How much intelligence and aptitude shifts over a lifetime is highly dependent on environment, and here's the really bad news for Kaufman's teachers: people who believe intelligence is fluid, and can be increased through hard work, are much more likely to put in that hard work and show that intelligence is fluid. Unfortunately, children who believe their intelligence is fixed are far more likely to avoid challenges and simply allow the label to speak for itself. Put simply, children who believe they can become smarter, become smarter through effort and persistence.

On first glance, it would be tempting to label all kids as "gifted" in the belief that they would then work up to that expectation, but that's not the way it works . According to the research of Stanford's Dr. Carol Dweck, both positive and negative labels, whether "gifted" or "seriously learning disabled," encourage a "fixed mindset," or the belief that nothing children do or think will change their intelligence. For "gifted" kids, that can mean that they are so worried about marring the shiny veneer of that label that they never risk failure, and for the "seriously learning disabled" kids, the grungy tattiness of their label can lead to apathy and hopelessness.

I stare at the history exam. With intense effort, I pick up my pencil to fill in the rest of the answers. I hesitate and put the pencil back down on the desk. I know the answers. I can go through the motions. But what's the point? They have given me as much time as I want to complete this test. I have the rest of my life to finish this test. If I ace the test now, or ace it when I'm 40, what's the difference? It's the start of ninth grade, and I'm still in special education. I yearn for more of a challenge. So much more.

Fortunately, Scott Barry Kaufman did not allow himself to fall in Dweck's "fixed mindset," and he spent much of his young life attempting to convince everyone around him - teachers, administrators, his parents - that his IQ, the two-digit representation of his potential that he'd been assigned when he was eleven years old, was incorrect. Kaufman embodies Dweck's "growth mindset," where the intrinsic motivation to achieve comes from within, where learning is its own end rather than a means to an A or a trophy.

Heart pounding, I thrust my chest out, put on my smartest facial expression, and start walking toward her. She greets me with the welcoming smile. "Hi. I'm Scott, and I think I may be gifted," I blurt out.

Kaufman was absolutely confident that he was not the sum of his IQ, that some mistake had been made, and if someone - anyone - would just give him a chance to show his classmates and his teachers what he was truly capable of, his true identity would be revealed. Unfortunately, Kaufman's teachers put their faith in power of the number elicited in that fourth grade IQ test, and continued to expect little of him. Alas, the only person with high expectations for Scott Barry Kaufman was Scott Barry Kaufman.

So, I've been reviewing your charts," he says seemingly nervous. Which makes me even more nervous. He takes out a piece of notebook paper and a pen, and robotically draws me a diagram. "This is you," he says as he pushes up his horn-rimmed glasses and points to the left side of what look like the outline of a camel's hump. "And this," he says, moving his finger toward the far right of the hump, "is gifted."

An IQ score is a lovely, simple, and tidy number. It takes up very little room on a school record, it's easy to remember, and renders the elaborate and complex workings of human intelligence down to one, user-friendly quotient. Above 140? Genius. 90-110? Average. Below 70? "Definite feeble-mindedness," according to Lewis Terman, professor of psychology at Stanford University. He took the much more comprehensive testing strategy invented by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905, and turned it into the standalone, numerical measure of intelligence we use today. Terman had high hopes for his IQ score; he wanted to use the test to identify people of both low intelligence (though Terman favored the term "feebleminded") and the intellectually gifted. He had big plans to identify and institutionalize the feebleminded in order to eliminate crime and poverty while exalting the gifted as the next, best hope for the future of humanity. Scott Barry Kaufman could have done a lot worse than imprisonment in the learning resource room; for a while Terman's devotees lobbied for forced sterilization for the feebleminded.

I decide to take a different approach. After school I dash off to the local library and find a book about human intelligence. I flip through the pages and come face to face with a terrifying chart. At the top is listed the average IQ of PhDs. I am way lower than that number. Tentatively, I go down the list. College graduate? Closer, but still no cigar. My blood pressure is rising. Semiskilled laborer? In my dreams. After some time, I finally find my range: "Lucky to graduate high school," it says.

Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools. We classify learning disabilities because children with dyslexia require very different academic support than children with Asperger's. In order to help these very different children, we must identify and understand their deficits and the resources those children will need. I have sat in on many meetings in which we - teams of psychologists, teachers, parents, learning specialists, and administrators - work to find the ideal combination of resources for kids with learning challenges. I have even recommended intelligence testing for students who, despite their persistence, diligence and effort, are not succeeding in school. I've seen testing lead to real academic and cognitive improvement, thanks to individualized education plans and access to learning resource professionals. However, when teachers and parents get lazy, and allow labels to supplant cultivation of potential, we fail. We fail our children, and we fail as educators and parents. For far too many children, the assignation of a label signals a death knell for future effort, learning, and academic achievement.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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