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Misuse of IQ Tests

While Dr. Alfred Binet conducted his research, he stressed the limitations on IQ testing.  Dr. Binet believed that intelligence was not fixed, but malleable, able to change with environmental variables.  He also believed that testing needed to be created for and conducted on children from a similar background to get accurate results.  But even then, his tests only showed one aspect of intelligence, and did not represent a full view of a child's intelligence or abilities.

Unfortunately, not everyone listened to Dr. Binet.  Three groups in particular stand out in this regard:  the U.S. Army, Ellis Island officials, and the Eugenics Record Office.

At the onset of World War I, the U.S. Army faced the colossal task of placing scores of recruits in various positions.  In 1917, psychologist Robert Yerkes chaired the Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, where he and fellow committee members created two different IQ tests for recruits:
  • Alpha test:  to test recruits who could read
  • Beta test:  to test recruits who could not read
By the end of WWI, over 2 million recruits had been tested, and either marked as cannon fodder or officer material.  Click here if you want to see a sample of the WWI IQ tests.

After WWI, the Alpha and Beta tests migrated from the army to Ellis Island, where incoming immigrants were tested.  Records show that whole swaths of people were denied entry based on IQ testing, without anyone taking into account the variations in social backgrounds between the immigrants and the test creators.  People erroneously developed stereotypes based on these tests, such as immigrants from Poland being "dumb", and an attempt was made in Congress to pass laws that weed out the feeble-minded from the rest of the immigrants.

But the worst misuse of IQ testing, in my opinion, was that by the Eugenics Record Office.

Founded in 1910, the Eugenics Record Office attempted to categorize people by genetic traits in order to "guide human evolution".  The founder, Charles Benedict Davenport, believed that "the general program of the eugenicist is clear - it is to improve the race by inducing young people to make a more reasonable selection of marriage mates; to fall in love intelligently. It also includes the control by the state of the propagation of the mentally incompetent."  In other words, Davenport believed in the forced sterilization of those who he determined were mentally incompetent.  And Davenport used IQ testing to "prove" his claims of feeble-mindedness.  Now, it is possible that Dr. Davenport did not understand how the IQ testing worked, that it did not measure intelligence per se.  But as a Harvard graduate and rather intelligent man himself, I believe he chose to overlook these problems when utilizing IQ tests to determine whether the government would remove a fundamental biological function from people he already deemed mentally incompetent.

In the end, over 65,000 people were forcefully sterilized from the early 1900s to 1981.



  1. This is wonderful information - everyone should read it - and learn more about Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which I (and many others) studied when I got my degree in Teacher Education.

    1. Thanks. I agree - I think everyone needs to understand multiple intelligences.

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