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Multiple Intelligences

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Last week, a doctor told us our 4-year-old son's IQ is 67.

What he actually said was that its probably somewhere around 67. He wasn't able to get an exact score because Henry couldn't understand entire sections of the test. He did fine with some of the labeling and matching and certain kinds of puzzles. But he had no idea what to do with the block patterns and no ability to assign categories. Riddles were lost on him. When presented with the problem: "I am an animal with feathers. What am I?" he answered, "Cat."

"If I asked the question in a different way, I think he would know the answer," the doctor said somewhat apologetically. "It's just that I have to follow the script so that we can compare him with other kids his age."

This wasn't what we wanted to hear from the expert we had paid generously to test our son under the best possible conditions, giving him every chance to succeed. We were there to get advice on where Henry should go to school, and this doctor's report would be an important factor in whether he would be admitted. It wasn't that I disagreed with his assessment of Henry's abilities, which seemed accurate. It was just that I found the results so devastating. Henry is my son, and when I look at him I see a boy who is clever and funny and full of potential.

A word of advice: If you ever find yourself in my situation, don't stand in the hall outside the doctor's office and Google "IQ under 70." The first thing to come up is a Wikipedia entry on "Mental Retardation." Further down the page you'll find links to "Lowest IQ World Record" and "Texas Executes Man with IQ of 61." A link to "IQ reference chart" tells me that Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who invented the concept of intelligence quotient in the early twentieth century, classified those with an IQ of 50-69 as "Morons." His American colleague Lewis Terman labeled this category "definite feeble mindedness." Today, the ugly clinical term for anyone with an IQ south of 70 is "mental retardation," ranked on a sliding scale from mild to profound.

The IQ test has an unsavory history in the United States. Despite his unfortunate terminology, Alfred Binet was one of the good guys. He was skeptical of the prevailing science of craniometry -- which sought to correlate intelligence with head size -- and looked for other ways to measure human intelligence. His scale was meant to identify children who needed extra educational support. Recognizing that intelligence could be shaped and nurtured, he advocated programs tailored to their particular needs and challenges. When Binet's scale traveled to America, it was put to more specious uses. The I.Q. became a measure to discredit entire populations. It justified a host of nasty prejudices, including anti-miscengenation laws, restrictions on immigration and enforced sterilization of the poor, criminals and the disabled.

Today, the limitations of the IQ test are widely recognized. We know that intelligence isn't a fixed quality that can be identified on a numerical scale. We also know that test results are correlated to socio-economic class, rewarding those who come from more affluent and well-educated families. Not only do we recognize multiple kinds of intelligence, but also that adaptive functioning plays an important part in a person's ability to succeed in the world. In her eye-opening book, Now You See It, Cathy Davidson points out that the IQ test is the product of early twentieth-century values of standardization, uniformity and linearity. In our digital age, these modes are simply obsolete. She writes, "If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask, What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?"

Much as I recognized the flaws in the test, I found it impossible not to care about the results. I know how much they matter. Between us, my husband and I have nearly 25 years of higher education, three master's degrees, two Ph.Ds and a J.D. We've gone far in life by being extremely good test takers. I teach at an Ivy League university where intelligence is held to be the highest virtue. It was cause for celebration when the SAT scores of our first year entering class outranked those of Yale's. I see the opportunities made available to students who, because of talent or training, know how to succeed at standardized tests.

Looking back at the worn folders overflowing with Henry's transition materials, I'm struck by how every aspect of my son's abilities and potential has been tracked, evaluated and assessed. Diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth, he has been described in terms of delay and deficit from his first moments of life. Sometimes his results were so low the percentile was measured in the negative, as if the test could imagine no child of his age capable of sinking to such depths. There is something unseemly about the sheer quantity of paper, the hours of work represented by those voluminous reports and the clear inadequacy of the scores and percentiles it all boils down to. What do those numbers tell about the value of a life? Or even the value of what any given child might bring to his or her classroom?

After he delivered our test scores, the doctor presented us with the depressingly short list of schools that would be appropriate for Henry.

When I got outside, it was already dark and a nasty storm was blowing in. I hurried toward the subway, wishing I were already home. I was trying to escape the weather. But I also knew that at home I would find the best rejoinder to the experts and the tests and the scores in the warm, complicated reality of my own child.