‘Ungifted’ rethinks validity of I.Q. test

UNGIFTED: Intelligence Redefined. By Scott Barry Kaufman. Basic Books. 272 pages. $26.99.

Every day in American schools, children are tested for intelligence. Twenty years ago, the I.Q. of one apparently bright little third-grader, Scott Kaufman, was tested. He was labeled a slow learner and placed in special education.

Years later, with a Ph.D from Yale University, his early misplacement is detailed in his recently published book, “Ungifted.” It’s a good read.

Kaufman probes the accepted wisdom of I.Q. testing and finds it wanting. He questions all the I.Q. assumptions from genetics to statistics and declares: “No more I.Q. tests, no more standardized tests, no more any other irrelevant tests that only serve to get in the way of realizing my dreams.”

But not so fast. It would seem that Kaufman has built his theory on a very sandy beach.

His theory, which argues for aborting intelligence testing, rests on a new definition of intelligence that he simply has fashioned himself.

The old definition of intelligence is, among other things, an ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas and learn from experience. Kaufman’s new definition of intelligence is “the dynamic interplay of engagement and pursuit of personal goals.”

The traditional definition of intelligence has been used successfully to measure individuals for several decades, and intelligence tests have measured it well. There exists a consensus among scientists today that these tests (Wechsler & Stanford Binet) are the most accurate and reliable of all the psychological assessments.

Intelligence tests do not measure creativity, character, personality or other important differences among individuals, nor are they intended to. The I.Q. test measures what it is supposed to measure. Intelligence, as defined by Kaufman, can be measured, if at all, by observation only.

It’s admirable that someone mislabeled as a “slow learner” in the third grade would seek to help others avoid the same pitfall. Kaufman’s book, “Ungifted” does just that, and teachers should read it. It introduces the reader to the world of intelligence testing in a highly literate style and pulls back the curtain on some very bad practices in public schools. But just because Kaufman was mislabeled in the third grade does not mean that intelligence needs a new definition.

Use of intelligence testing in public schools should be limited to conditions clearly established by law and handled with sensitive care. Even then, the psychologist who administers the test should expect some collateral damage, and adjust for it.

It is the I.Q. test results and reliability that spread individuals along an intelligence continuum, from low to high. This continuum separates the few who are very bright from those who need special educational help. The research findings on I.Q. testing neither dictate nor preclude social policy on student placement.

Intelligence tests can, however, help professionals estimate the likely success and side effects of pursuing programs that best serve the needs of the gifted and the ungifted. It is fortunate that I.Q. tests do precisely what they’re supposed to do, and do it without prejudicial bias.

Despite his exhaustive review of the literature on human intelligence, it is Kaufman who is most clearly revealed in his book. He makes a strong case that anyone can be great, even the “ungifted.”

It’s obvious that writing the book was cathartic for him and his cautions about the use of tests are a valuable contribution to the profession. But his conclusion about abandoning I.Q. testing, “and any other irrelevant tests that only serve to get in the way of realizing dreams,” should be taken with a healthy grain of old-fashioned salt.

Reviewer J.P. Lutz is a retired public school educator and administrator living in Mount Pleasant.