What does your child’s IQ test really tell you?

Millions of intelligence (IQ) tests are administered each year to children in the United States as part of special education eligibility evaluations and are among the most common instruments used by psychologists in clinical and educational settings. IQ tests are typically used as part of a diagnostic battery to predict success in school or academic achievement. Typically an IQ tells the psychologist what a child is “capable” of doing while a test of academic achievement, such as tests like the PSSA, tell us how the child is “actually” doing. In most cases these scores will be similar; however in the case of an under-motivated student or a student with a learning disability, a large discrepancy will be produced, suggesting that the student may not be achieving his/her full potential.

The most common IQ tests for school-aged children include the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler family of tests. The Stanford- Binet is one instrument that includes different tasks for different aged children, while the Wechsler tests are grouped by age level, with one for pre-school children, a different one for most school-aged students and a third one specifically for adults. All of these tests include a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal tasks, including questions examining vocabulary and language, short-term memory, spatial ability and abstract reasoning.

Psychologists who work with school-aged children are trained to include a wide variety of data sources in their assessment batteries. In fact, the term “assessment” reflects a much broader attempt to understand the whole child and includes test data as well as classroom observations, parent and teacher rating scales, a comprehensive development history and a review of school and academic records. Additionally, federal or state laws, or school district guidelines require that more information than a single IQ test be collected in the diagnosis of mental retardation or the identification of students who are gifted. Psychologists also are trained to be sensitive to the testing situation and will take a break from the testing or will reschedule it for a later time if they observe the child to be anxious, inattentive or unmotivated.

While IQ tests are very good predictors of academic achievement and of general intelligence, it’s important to remember that this single test cannot capture all aspects of a child’s full range of abilities. IQ tests do not measure creativity, social or self-help skills, athletic or musical ability. This is where the full assessment battery can enhance the IQ test—by adding additional information to paint a much larger, more detailed and comprehensive picture.

Today, almost every psychologist agrees that intelligence is made up of both genetic and environmental factors although the exact contribution of each factor continues to be debated. In this respect, intelligence is thought to remain stable across the lifespan and, in fact, IQ scores typically do not fluctuate by more than a few points throughout a person’s life. When large changes in IQ scores are produced they tend not to be the result in a corresponding increase or decrease in true intelligence. For example, a child may enter a psychiatric facility due to extreme depression and upon admission may be given an IQ test. In this instance the rationale for the test is not to assess his/her true potential but rather to give clinicians a baseline for comparing subsequent treatment effects. A few weeks or months later, after intensive individual and group therapy and possibly after anti-depressant medication has been prescribed, it would not be unusual for a second IQ test to produce a score 20 or 30 points higher. This rather dramatic increase in IQ scores would not reflect an increase in “true” intelligence but rather would reflect the fact that the child’s ability to function was severely compromised due to his/her illness and that following treatment, the child’s skills had returned to a normal level.

The distinction between intelligence and achievement is important to keep in mind. Intelligence is thought to remain fairly constant over time, while academic achievement reflects our learning and our interactions with the environment and is constantly growing. Reading the newspaper every day, doing a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku, or engaging in a conversation with our friends or neighbors is good for our mental health and may lessen some of the effects of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the many benefits of these activities, they will not typically enhance our underlying intellectual ability.

In a similar way, the distinction between IQ scores and actual intelligence is not always clear but is important to acknowledge. IQ tests can be influenced to some degree by language ability, anxiety, motivation, cultural familiarity and the economic background of the individual. These influences are normally rather small and the test publishers and the psychologists who administer IQ tests do everything possible to minimize their influence; however non-intellectual factors still do contribute to the resulting IQ score. As a result, many psychologists are looking at new ways of examining intelligence to minimize these outside influences. For example, my research examines how technology can be used to enhance the assessment of intelligence by utilizing computers to see how fast (in milliseconds) simple cognitive problems can be solved. No reading or language skills or other cultural knowledge is required for success. While these measures are not yet commercially available, they may one day supplement or replace the traditional way in which intelligence is measured so that the goal of most accurate, less biased conclusions can be achieved.

Joseph C. Kush, Ph.D., is a professor of education at Duquesne University and the author of a new book,  Intelligence Quotient: Testing, Role of Genetics and the Environment and Social Outcomes. He is a licensed psychologist and a Pennsylvania certified school psychologist.