07/02/2007 02:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

IQ Tests - Still Wreaking Havoc

A flurry of internet discussions and talk show grist was unleashed after Norwegians Petter Kristensen and Tor Bjerkedal published their study, "Explaining the Relation between Birth Order and Intelligence," in Science magazine. The premise of this discussion is so ridiculous that it boggles the mind to see how credulous the public can be. Their idea is that oldest children, exposed to more adult talk and adult interaction, become smarter (as measured by IQ) while younger ones, immersed in more childish worlds because of living with "less developed" siblings, don't get as smart. So isolating children in a world of adults is certainly better if you want them to get into Harvard.

It's poppycock on so many levels. But Stanford Emeritus Professor of Psychology Robert Zajonc was on KQED the other day intoning in authoritative judgments on the serious implications on this study. As they say, "Nonsense is nonsense; but the study of nonsense is scholarship."

There is so much that is foolish about this discussion, an embarrassment of riches, that I'm not sure where to begin. Maybe just to tick off a few points:

* Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests were pretty much exposed as fraud decades ago and I thought they had been dumped by any serious scholars. These tests go back to the era of eugenics and social Darwinism. They are suspect in their origin and their purpose. And, whatever one thinks of IQ tests, the difference they researchers found was miniscule, just two points.

* Most tests, including standardized school and SAT tests, tend to track the kind of socialization and language experience you have had. All societies and cultures socialize their young adequately to function in those societies. But in a diverse society such as the U.S., the measures of adequacy are established by white middle class academics. So they are really testing for, "How much have you managed to talk and think like me?" This is a handy way to mask reproduction of privilege and class as a fair meritocracy.

* Professor Zajonc is satisfied to define this as a parental duty, to talk to children with $10 words, to use every interaction as a teaching moment, so that their 7-year-olds will outperform other 7-year-olds. Working-class, African-American, Latino, and other children are considered at a disadvantage, suffering from a developmentally barren environment, for every day they are not being drilled by a white middle class parent. This is the fault of the institutions, which honor white middle class discourse, not of the children or parents.

* While this hogwash is useful in maintaining the achievement gap and keeping the oppressed down, it unfortunately also makes life more miserable for plenty of white middle-class kids. Because their parents, already anxious about their college admissions options starting at birth, will become more frantic to "speak in adult ways" to them, to drop SAT words at every opportunity, to turn every situation into a learning game, and to drill, drill, drill. What happened to play, to social development, to art, wonder, ethics, and mystery?

* While we may blame the Norwegian psychologists for this new twist on the education-anxiety garrote, we can also look to Scandinavia for a reality check. Finland, which has the highest literacy rate in the world, does not begin formal reading instruction for children until age seven -- whereas in the U.S., kindergartners and even pre-schoolers are being pushed to read. Linda Perlstein's book Tested, to be released this summer, describes American kindergarten classes that have been extended to full day, with academic training all day, and at most a half hour for recess. Play in America is becoming a thing of the past.

* I have spent a lot of time wondering about how to more properly measure what children know and are able to do. How can we make our assessments more humane? But this race to the ridiculous, signaled by how enthusiastically the public embraced the Norwegian study, makes me question the whole mania with measurement, and pseudo-science in education, altogether. Must everything be measured? Should we assess kindergarten play? Americans have an obsession with testing and measurement, even when the measures do not stand up to scrutiny. We do the same with food. Dinner cannot be simply a sensual or a cultural experience. Americans consider food mainly as a mechanical ingestion, usually fraught with danger and anxiety. What a way to live!

I can't believe we are so credulous, so willing to accept these specious studies and then live by them. I can't believe our society has millions and millions of dollars to fund such studies and the academics who talk about them as if they have meaning. What a waste of resources and focus. Why not just go out and have a cappuccino?