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Intelligence is not the skills we have mastered or the knowledge we have accumulated, but rather, it is our potential to acquire and retain new skills or knowledge. Designing intelligence tests is so challenging, therefore, because it is almost impossible to build a test that does not base itself on pre-existing skills. Imagine, for instance, that you have a student who struggles to learn math. To help this student, you spend extra time practicing math with them until they can outperform many of their peers. Now imagine that this hypothetical student is given an intelligence test with many math questions, and they score highly. Did the student improve their mathematical intelligence or did they simply memorize a large number of math concepts and computations? Even more confounding is the fact that we know the brain constantly rewires itself to become better at the skills we practice. Meaning that a student can actually become “smarter” by studying. In reality, intelligence is probably a fluid concept, rather than a fixed one.  

Do Intelligence Tests Work?
Intellectual assessments were originally meant to test someone’s raw intellectual potential. The most famous of these assessments is, of course, the IQ test. However, these tests do not measure true intelligence, but rather a proxy of intelligence, and as such their results are only valid when identifying extremely large deviations. If an IQ test was testing intellectual ability rather than intellectual preparedness, you would not be able to study for it and improve your result, but companies, like Genius Tests, that sell these tests admit that it is possible to study for them in order to increase your score. These tests also reveal certain institutional biases. White middle/upper class students, for example, tend to do better than non-white, working class students. When we consider the fact a white person's’ brain is identical to a non-white person’s brain, we have to realize that the science of intelligence tests is flawed. The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that the test is measuring academic preparedness, rather than raw intellectual potential.The brain literally rewires itself to become better at the tasks we practice. As such, if a student comes from an economically disadvantaged home, with few books, lower quality nutrition, and less educated parents who do not have the luxury of time to help with homework, that child is likely not going to perform well on an intelligence test. However, this low IQ score would not necessarily indicate the student’s actual intellectual potential.

Is it ever appropriate to use an intelligence test? 

Labelling Theory, Hattie’s work on Teacher Estimates of Achievement, and the Pygmalion experiment, have taught us that making prejudgements about a student actually has an extremely large impact on student achievement. If a teacher prematurely or incorrectly assesses a student as having an intellectual disability, they risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a student in this situation do poorly, the teacher might blame the student’s intellectual disability and discount his or her own accountability. The teacher might modify their own expectations for the student, and even their marking can be potentially biased by these labels.While it is extremely tempting to think of ourselves as above being biased, the reality is that bias has a subtle and pernicious effect that is difficult to avoid. Even more troubling is how labels regarding intelligence can affect racialized and oppressed communities. The Canadian Government, for example, used English IQ tests as justification to forcibly sterilize immigrants who could not speak English in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, because of socio-economic factors, racialized students are far more likely to be identified as having a learning disability or intellectual disability. What we want to avoid is making unnecessary or unqualified judgments about a student’s intelligence that could potentially create a labelling bias. Which is not to say that it is always inappropriate to use an intelligence test but, rather, that we should be extremely careful with their application. 

While an intelligence test is extremely skewed by academic preparedness, it can be more useful on the extreme ends of spectrums. For example, if a student is in grade six and scores well below a grade one level on an intelligence test or in the very bottom percentile of a school’s population, it would seem reasonable to believe that the students MIGHT have an intellectual disability, and the test could, therefore, be used as a justification to provide that student with modified learning goals. However, I would point out that there are MANY factors that can skew a test, for instance, giving a student an intelligence test in English, when it is not his or her first language, or giving a student an intelligence test after he or she has stayed up late and are too tired to give his or her best effort. It is important to remember that we, as teachers, are not psychologists and that we are not actually qualified to use these tests. Intelligence tests can be potentially dangerous tools. We do not want to see professionals using these tests on a frequent or casual basis. Most importantly, we want to make sure we are not callously  identifying racialized students or students living in poverty as having an intellectual disability and then creating self-fulfilling prophecies. 

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Written by: Nate Joseph

Last Edited: 6/14/2019


D Shirfrer, C Muller, S Callahan. (2010). Disproportionality and Learning Disabilities: Parsing Apart Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Language. The Journal For Learning Disabilities. PMC4133990. 

E, Brewer. (2019). Toward a Neurobiological Basis for Understanding Learning in University Modeling Instruction Physics Courses. Frontiers in ICT. Retrieved from <> 

L, Barque, N, Davis, L, Cutting. (2014). Neuroimaging of Reading Intervention: A Systematic Review and Activation Likelihood Estimate Meta-Analysis. PMCID: PMC3888398
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J, Marsh. (2015). Eugenics: Pseudo-Science Based on Crude Misconceptions of Heredity. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from <>. 

Genius Tests. (2019). Can You Study for an IQ Test? Retrieved from <>


J, Hattie. (2015.) Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from

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