New tests, old results

April 21, 2000

IQ tests will not help get more working-class kids into university, argues Ken Richardson.

Scholastic aptitude tests, used for more than 80 years in the United States to assess the ability of high-school students, are being considered in Britain. University College London is investigating the use of the tests, while the Sutton Trust, a charity run by the philanthropist Peter Lampl, is paying for a trial at 60 schools next month.

The hope is that using Sats (or IQ tests) to supplement A levels will enable Britain's top universities to redress the huge social class bias in their admissions and rescue currently wasted (lower-class) talent. But will it work?

In my view, it is highly unlikely; and the very idea is shallow and misguided. Almost every claim supporting the use of such tests in the US has been disputed. And the idea that Sats will tap innate cognitive/scholastic aptitude rather than developed knowledge and skills is roundly scorned.

Moreover, it is extremely doubtful that Sat results can predict university performance. In a recent US court case, Claude Steele, professor of psychology at Stanford University, gave evidence that "standardised admissions testsI are of limited value in evaluating 'merit' or determining admissions". He said there was "extensive evidence documenting the limited predictiveness of these tests", which add virtually nothing to the predictability of high-school grades alone. He also claimed that "systematic influences" affecting the progress of working-class, black and ethnic minority children "make these tests even less diagnostic of their scholastic potential". Steele's is typical of numerous attacks on Sats in the US.

Such conclusions are hardly surprising in view of the fog surrounding the question of what the tests actually measure. Much is made of correlations between test scores and other indices of success. But this mystique evaporates as soon as we look at how the tests are constructed. First, a pool of little questions and problems are assembled by a panel of "item" writers. These are designed more or less impressionistically, because there is no agreed scientific theory about what the mysterious intelligence or aptitude being sought and tested actually is. Then the questions are administered to a large sample of children representative of target testees. Questions that throw up performances that correlate with the school grades of the same children are retained, those that do not are dropped.

This is how the tests come to predict school attainments. It could hardly be otherwise. Moreover, since school attainment is the pivot of so much that follows, it is hardly surprising that test scores predict subsequent occupational status and earnings as well. This is all "built in" by humans. What is really being measured is family and cultural background.

It has been shown how the academic climate of the home has a huge impact on the cognitive development and scholastic achievement of children. This involves imparting certain kinds of general knowledge, certain forms of language use and logical/cognitive structures, all of which are prominent in middle-class homes and in the chosen test items. The same parents will also tend to have high aspirations for their children and push them accordingly, as will teachers who see them as bright. The result is cumulative because school learning further boosts IQ test scores.

It is also known that home climate and aspirations are strongly conditioned by parents' own success or failure in school. Research by Albert Bandura has shown how parents who were school failures end up with poor "cognitive self-efficacy beliefs" that they then pass on to their children. All this often leads to real consequences in terms of what has been called "learned helplessness", reduced self-confidence and heightened anxiety in testing situations. Many studies have demonstrated a strong association between test-anxiety and test performance.

One of the ironies of the pretensions about innate aptitude surrounding Sats is that they have fuelled a lucrative coaching industry. Some private tutors claim enormous gains; their size is disputed, but not their existence. More to the point, parents who buy coaching for their children are more likely to be middle-class, affluent, with high aspirations, leading to a still higher correlation between Sat scores and social background.

In all these ways, then, IQ/Sat tests are even more systematic reflections of social background than A-level results. Time and again it has been shown that the only good predictor of university performance is a record of intrinsic scholarly interest in the discipline itself. Moreover, educational performance seems to have little, if any, association with subsequent job performance - and neither do standardised tests.

So the problem of fairer access to university will not be solved by adding one poor predictor to another. The current, hugely unfair mythological meritocracy is itself based on a deep-seated ideology of human ability. It is one that systematically inflates or corrodes children's potential from very early in life, and that is where the real problem lies.

Ken Richardson is honorary senior research fellow at the Open University. He is author of The Making of Intelligence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

* Do Sats reveal innate intelligence and will they enable more lower-class students to enter our top universities? Email us at

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