Tuesday, January 16, 2007

intelligence testing and schooling

On my train home Friday I met a parent with a child in a school different than my daughters who was bemoaning the policy of requiring a school psych eval on kindergarten kids before they could advance to the next grade. My daughter’s school has the same policy, and I was therefore intrigued by Charles Murray’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of intelligence and schooling. I am generally opposed to forcing testing on parents for a number of reasons (aside from the fact that the cost is passed directly to parents but the schools generally refuse to give you a copy of the eval). My wife and I have come across more than one person in various schools reviewing scores who have been simply ignorant as to how to interpret testing scores properly (full disclosure: I have a graduate degree in ed, but the truth is any parent who makes an effort to become informed can, in my opinion, become more knowledgable in these areas that many teachers). A 100 on an IQ test is not like a 100 on a school test – 100 is simply an average score based on the test being normed among a large population. How far your score is from the norm is a measure of how far statistically you differ from the average member of the population. The magic question is how much deviation is statistically significant and what impact the degree of deviation has - a score of 95, for example, is not a significant deviation and no matter how hard your school preaches that your child is below average, that is simply a lie. Just to show you how far the twisting of ideas goes, note this sentence from Murray: “Today's simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence.” This is supposed to come as a shocker, but it leaves me scratching my head and saying “Huh?” If intelligence is an average measure, by definition half the population will have below average scores and half above average! This statistical silliness is child’s play compared to what some schools do with test evals – beware! The second problem with testing is that the schools rely on a single evaluator to make all determinations, and that evaluator has a financial exclusive with the school. Is that truly an independent assessment of a student, and is it holistic? Not really. These evaluations will result in large numbers of students referred to the district or state for special ed classes (with the parents reassured not to worry as it costs than nothing - it also costs the school nothing and lightens teachers' burderns, but only a cynic would think of that). Logically, since 100 is an average IQ score, there should be as many students in need of advanced work and enrichment because they have high scores as students in need of remediation, yet I am not aware of any programs of these type offered in yeshivos or students referred outside the school for them. Finally, I wonder to what degree low IQ really need be an obstacle to success in school if teachers work to engage a fuller range of students’ abilities than the narrow subset measured by IQ tests (Howard Gardner is a good read on this; it is too complex to address here).

Murray did get me thinking about the system of Bais Medrash learning most teens are forced into – given that haf the population will inevitably have below average IQ, does it make sense to force teens into programs that demand rigorous reading and cognitive analysis that they simply cannot perform? Might it not be better to design programs that offer a range of learning experiences so a student can find success on his/her own level?


  1. Chaim,I read the article in the WSJ.Thank you for bringing it to my attention as I might have not read the fine print(I read it every day).

    But please clarify whether you agree with Murray or not.Your post is rather rambling and hard for a simple layman like myself to understand it.

  2. I apologize for not being clear. There is a grain of truth to what Murray says, but I don't think it is as cut and dried as low IQ=poor school performance. He does not give sufficient weight to other factors like effort, the quality of teaching, etc.
    I was speaking more generally o the abuse of testing by the schools.

  3. In general I don't think schools focus on those skills measured by IQ tests. They are far too focused on skills measured by state tests or SATs or regular tests. There is very little focus on depth of thought.

    The Bais Medrash system is a big problem. I believe one of the deepest sources of the problem is that there is only one model of excellence in learning. Who says every one should become a poseik? Everyone needs to know halakha but there is absolutely no reason why everyone must be an expert in the Talmud. There is far too much focus on whether or not a child can make a leining (a skill) as opposed to focusing on the depth to which a child understands a mitzva.

  4. You are forgetting the most basic failure of the Yeshiva system - Torah Shebichtav is neither studied nor taught properly. It is a tragedy.

    I am currently in the process of writing an article on this subject entitled "Why Torah Education Fails - And What We Can Do About It." I began working on it about a year ago and returned to it recently.

    The problem, as I see it, is that we do not approach Torah study as the study of a real field of knowledge; it is instead construed as a religious exercise. Therefore, we don't formulate clear objectives, methods and evaluative criteria as we would in areas of secular academia.

    For example, how many children learn an entire book of Tanach and can explain its contents and thematic structure, or thoroughly examine the principles underlying even a single mitsvah, during their Day School years? Almost none. What they receive is "tzav letzav, kav lekav, zeir sham, zeir sham." A chullent of smatterings of different subjects cannot be compared to the thorough, principled study of a single one.

    Although Talmud Torah is a mitsvah, the mitsvah is to study the material of Written and Oral Torah properly, comprehensively, in an appropriate sequence, and with sensitivity to the needs and capabilities of the individual learner.

  5. I agree 100% with Rabbi Maroof.

  6. Anonymous8:20 AM

    To apply Rabbi Maroof's apt suggestion, we would also need to retrain the teachers and administrators in the proper methods.

    It's like situations you see in the workplace. If Technician A, who has the procedure wrong, becomes the trainer of Technician B, who will work alongside him or replace him, you know that B will learn it wrong.

    Who will amass funds and find personnel to do the retraining, if each institution is a separate private enterprise already short of cash?

  7. >>>The problem, as I see it, is that we do not approach Torah study as the study of a real field of knowledge; it is instead construed as a religious exercise. Therefore, we don't formulate clear objectives, methods and evaluative criteria as we would in areas of secular academia.

    Rabbi Maroof, you hit the nail right on the head as usual!

    Anonymous, before you get to a discussion of funding, you need to get schools to acknowledge that doing same-old same-old as they have been for years is not working and needs to change. I have posted about this before. Without a penny of funding you can read all you can written by Howard Gardner, herbert Kohl, John Holt, Ed de Bono, Theodore Sizer, Jerome Bruner, and others from your public library and have faculty meetings (possibly even open to parents) to brainstorm how to implement these ideas and teach kids better. It doesn't take money - it takes time to devote to doing things right, and a mindset open to change and the willingness to take the risk of non-conformity with the system.

  8. Anonymous7:06 PM

    my wife, and other concerned parents led an initiative to bring a program from Canada that addresses learning difficulties at the source.

    it enables students who have learning issues to absorb the material.

    this program works great with the resource rooms, where the child first gets the capacity to learn, and the resource room catches them up with what they missed.

    Many students with average and above intellegence can have learning difficulties that cripple their ability to master the material. The program's set of exercises are based on nueroplasticity research(the brains ability to increase capacity by stimulating various cognitive areas). customized schedule of exercises are designed to treat each child, who work through various exercises (oral, written, visual, computer based) during the day.
    The program was introduced at HALB in Long Beach, NY, and can make a tremendous difference in our childrens lives.

    for more information, see

  9. Anonymous12:34 PM

    i don't know what you mean by 95 not being statistically significant. it may not be a reliable score, but if repeated tests show a mean of 95 that is absolutely significantly different than average. The sefardic advantage over general iq is iirc less than one standard deviation, and the ashkenazi is a bit more - that is a huge difference. if you are toying with the idea that there's no difference except between 100 and 115/116, you are misundersatnding the concept of statistical significance. To demonstrate that two things are different you need to do this to some confidence level, but the actual scores can be demonstrably different, i.e. not noise, even with the most minimal reliable difference.

    Howard Gardner's book is junk. If you follow his view, apes have more intelligence than people (bodily kinesthetic intelligence) These are skills, not what we consider academic intelligence, and not anything associated with schooling - we have the concept of academic intelligence for a reason. (Of course, people should be encouraged to develop talents that aren't academic but we don't need to redefine intelligence to do that) He has no model of intelligence, he just lists a bunch of talents he considers to jive with intelligence. (The book was also researched by grad students and my memory is that they did a poor job but i read it twenty or so years ago when it came out)