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Intelligence Exams Discriminate Against Minority Children

February 25, 2010

The article “Junior Meritocracy”, published recently in New York Magazine, exposes some of the inherent flaws in the intelligence testing of four-year-old children.  Exams such as the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-III), Standford-Binet Intelligence Scales (SB-5), and the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) are used by prestigious elementary schools in New York to screen students for acceptance. These exams are intended to measure four-year olds’ intelligence in a way that is uninfluenced by factors such as socioeconomic condition and cultural background. The problem is, by testing students at such a young age, these schools are acting upon the same factors these exams are supposed to overcome.

Intelligence exams discriminate against children whose experiences in education or life (as much of their knowledge comes from their home environment) are inconsistent with that of mainstream America.

They are administered by trained professionals under strict regulations; some so strict that administrators are not allowed to repeat questions for the test-takers. Imagine if a speaker of a non-standard dialect such as African American English (AAE) was asked to describe something by a Standard American English (SAE) speaker, and did not understand what was being said. Or perhaps he did understand the question, but the test administrator did not understand his oral response because the way he pronounces his words is consistent with his native dialect, AAE. If either of these instances should occur repeatedly, this child might fail his exam. Because the score is so heavily weighted, he might not qualify for the competitive school he’s applying to, due to his linguistic background and not his intellectual capacity.

These exams are also expensive (some cost as much as $275, not including costs associated with preparation), which makes it difficult for families of modest economic means to afford the opportunity for their child to compete for attendance at a prestigious school. Even if a family could afford the exam or qualify for a fee waiver, their child may still not have a good chance at acceptance without adequate test preparation. This is possible because “IQ tests are graded on a bell curve” so the results are vulnerable to the performances of other children taking the same exam. A bell curve is designed so that a certain percentage of scores qualify as “very high”, the same percentage qualifies as “very poor”, and the majority of scores are considered “around average”. So if the majority of the other children were enrolled in an intelligence test preparatory program (there are many on the market, most of which are more expensive than the actual test itself) prior to the exam and one was not, that child is likely to rank far below the rest of his peers, resulting in a test score that does not meet the school’s requirements for acceptance.

While some people might think rejection from a prestigious elementary school is not a big deal, parents investigating these schools know that enrollment will set their children on a successful life trajectory. A large percentage of students who begin their schooling at selective institutions go on to attend Ivy League colleges, which offer a lot of valuable networking and internship opportunities. In a sense, gaining admission to a prestigious elementary school admits a child into an elite educational system with more opportunities and experiences considered important for success in mainstream America. At these institutions they will be learning and building upon knowledge necessary for later exams, such as Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Their futures are almost secured by one small, biased exam.

Jennifer Senior describes aptitude tests for four-year-olds best when she acknowledges that they “retard a meritocracy instead of promoting one. They reflect the world as it’s already stratified—and then perpetuate that same stratification.” By opting to use a procedure that can easily be affected by linguistic and socioeconomic statuses, selective schools are discriminating against those less economically stable.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Zeke permalink
    March 6, 2010 7:03 am

    This post exposes well the hypocrisy of aptitude tests that purport to bypass socioeconomic and cultural factors. Perhaps our great desire to have meritocracy overwhelms our sense of its absence.

    Going forward, we would do well to keep our eyes out for this tendency. For when we critique a specific item of unfairness, such as these tests, we may find ourselves tempted to rectify the noted failings and claim victory.

    Besides the linguistic bias of preschool entrance exams, the American education system is rife with instances of socioeconomic and cultural stratification. If we see a threat in the aptitude tests for preschool because they influence the outcome of college admissions, then what of college admissions themselves? The SATs and ACTs sport their own arrays of expensive preparatory courses that separate the well-trained rich from the hopeful poor. As families race to meet the latest standards of college admissions, applications come to look more and more similar. Admissions departments have, over the years, added new dimensions of achievement or emphasized different values in order to better gauge the range of abilities. Test scores, extracurricular activities, AP classes and early application have arisen in the past few decades as newly important measures of scholastic aptitude. Each one of the above trials, though, possesses vulnerability to differences of class and cultural background. Though intended as gatekeepers of meritocracy, many tests in place within the education system provide judgments that fall along lines of class and race. The preschools are the tip of the unfair iceberg.

    Whether we consider preschool, middle school, high school or college, we find that pretensions of fidelity to academic values often serve to reinforce existing social stratification. Until a series of reforms comes to provide holistic rejiggering of competition in academia, education shall do more to inform us of our role than give us power to change it.

  2. Zahida permalink
    December 3, 2013 9:57 am

    Besides the absurdity of the standardized intelligence testing of 4-year olds (which is worthy of an entire blog on its own), it is really sad that from such a young age (and often without even realizing why it is happening) it is so much harder for African-Americans to get a good education.

    More awareness definitely needs to be raised about African-American English, and the different linguistic backgrounds kids bring to the classroom in general. To be honest, before I took a linguistics class on African-American English, I thought that African-American English was mispronounced standard English. If I had become a teacher (which is something I have thought about doing) before learning about African-American English, where it came from, and a little bit of a familiarity of the rules, I think I would have thought that the African-Americans in my class just didn’t know how to speak standard English because they didn’t. I remember when Obama was running for elections, people were talking about how he used “Black language” to “talk down”, “talk dumb”, and speak “incorrectly” to Blacks, and back then, I didn’t think twice about how African-American English was seen as inferior and less intelligent rather than just different. Now that I know about African-American English, it amazes me that this isn’t a widely known fact by teachers and schools where African-Americans really seem to be struggling. (Apparently 45% of African-Americans drop out of public schools before they graduate…)

    But if linguistic and socioeconomic prejudice, as this article shows, start when these students are four years old, I am not really surprised by that statistic anymore, nor by prejudiced opinions of articles about African-Americans in public schools like this one:

    I bet if she knew about African-American English her understanding of how African-Americans “misbehave more often” would be a lot different…

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