What Does Intelligence Mean?

by Amanda Stern
Originally Published: 
standardized testing
Chris Schmidt / iStock

As a child, I existed inside the heart of an unremitting dread that my mother would die or disappear.

When I left for school every morning, I worried that my house and my family would be gone when I returned. I was hyper-vigilant about my mother’s whereabouts. To ensure her survival and my own I kept my eye on her, refusing all invitations from friends to sleep over, never reciprocating the offers for fear they’d distract me, cause me to lose sight of my mother, and then she’d die. I barely made it through a night in my own bed, ending up on my mother’s couch or the floor of my sister’s room. I woke up to check her breathing. I woke up to make sure she was still there.

I had trouble telling time, remembering the days of the week and the months of the year. I was a third-rate student, but it wasn’t until after I took my first standardized test in middle school, the ERB, that concerns about me took a specific shape. I was sent for more testing, for one-on-one time with a short, bosomy woman on the Upper West Side named Dr. G. The test was so long, I returned every weekend for an entire month. Not long after that first test with Dr. G, I found myself in a different office with a new specialist, where I spent four more weekends re-taking the test I’d already spent four weekends taking; that’s when I realized I’d failed Dr. G’s test, and the ERB. Why hadn’t anyone told me?

Even so, I didn’t understand how questions about capitals and states related to my fearfulness, how knowing Genghis Khan or where the sun set was going to tell them why I couldn’t leave my mother and why I constantly feared her death. That’s when a sickening sweep dragged though me: They were testing me for the wrong thing.

The one wrong answer in a world of right

The trouble wasn’t my brain, it was my feelings, but they were testing my intelligence, and expecting answers for things I’d not been taught, anticipating that I would know the things I didn’t. Did other children know Genghis Khan? Did other kids know where the sun set? Had I been absent on the day all that was taught, or did there exist a type of pre-installed intelligence only I was born without? If everyone shared one type of intelligence, then the world would assume that I shared it too, and I was terrified that people would discover the truth. Because I believed I should already know everything, my assumption about all I didn’t know precluded the sense I could learn it. I was faulty.

I was not told what was wrong with me, but I knew it involved my brain and, mortified to discover I was stupid, I went in dogged pursuit to conceal the evidence. I read and re-read every issue of Mad magazine I owned and learned the comic nuance of satire; I studied the “Bummers” section in Dynamite in order to pass the one-liners off as my own. Somehow I knew that being funny was the best course of defense, a shield behind which my inner casualties could hide.

Every test I took resulted in some fundamental change: I repeated sixth grade (or, “my post-graduate year”), I was placed in the C section of classes (with the other “idiot kids”). I took countless tests to measure a variety of states: medical, intellectual, psychological, sensory, ocular, auditory and had a federation of tutors, all to fix a vague and shapeless learning issue whose name I was never told. All I knew was that it was a “disability,” and as each withheld test result affected my placement in school, my relationship to the word “disability” grew stronger. I felt defective internally, which was the worst location for a disability to exist. I liked my conditions physical, so they were announced to the world with a wheelchair, a glass eye or a set of clunky hearing aids. I ached for my disability to be evident, that way people could see what was wrong and stop testing me. If my disability were observable then people would expect less of me, or better—nothing at all.

Although the dull tugging belief that they were testing me for the wrong thing persisted, I grew to accept as fact that I was intellectually impaired, that the adults were right and I was wrong. That everyone was right and I was wrong. I assumed I knew nothing, and when I did know something I second-guessed it because it originated from my defective brain. I even came to doubt my feelings, the most developed part of me, which led me to mistrust my own experience in the world. My fear and my conviction were the same: That I was the flaw in the universe, the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world.

What testing taught me was that there exists only one right answer to every question, yet no matter how many times I asked an evaluator or a specialist, after taking a stabbing guess, “Was that right? Is that the answer?” no one would tell me. How was I expected to get anything right when no one would tell me when I didn’t?

Knowing something was wrong without knowing its name kept me disconnected and apart, too worried about my difference to get close to others, afraid they’d see it and identify it themselves. At school, we were provided context for the material we were tested on, but the tests I took after school weren’t anchored in anything. If there was one right answer to every question, then what was I to make of adults’ inability to arrive at the one right answer for what was wrong with me? Did that make me the one wrong answer in a world of right? Or did they know, and simply couldn’t bring themselves to tell me?

How do we test intelligence?

What a test of practical intelligence was designed to measure is historically at odds with how these tests are used and what the experience of taking them led me to believe about myself. Intelligence testing can be traced back to the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who in 1905 was commissioned by his government to design a test that identified students who needed alternative learning. Binet believed that people developed at different rates and that environment influenced intellectual development.

Intelligence, he argued, was not genetic, or fixed, and could not—should not—be assessed using quantitative measures, and because conditions must be considered, testing must account for all variables. Binet was clear that his test—the Binet-Simon Scale—should not be used to measure intelligence or to rank and route children by using the results to elevate the brightest and devalue those who receive low scores. However, once it reached America, this is exactly what happened to the IQ test, and it’s what happened to me.

It was H.H. Goddard who brought the Binet-Simon Scale to America and translated it into English, hoping it would help advance his social agenda, known then and now as eugenics. To prove the white race was superior, he proposed adding definitions to each IQ range. Numbered scores soon had identifying markers, and those found to be Morons, Imbeciles, Idiots or Feeble-minded would be removed from society, institutionalized or sterilized. Goddard’s sole purpose was not to identify those who needed help, but to popularize eugenics.

But it was eugenicist Lewis Terman, a member of the Human Betterment Foundation, who revised and modernized Binet’s test, now called the Stanford-Binet, promoting it as a tool to measure and identify intelligence. This idea of creating a new American elite swept the nation. The America Terman imagined was cleansed of poverty, crime and “Imbeciles,” one where the ruling class was comprised of the exceptionally intelligent, a designation only test scores could establish. Those who performed poorly would be sterilized, institutionalized or encouraged not to procreate.

Unlike Binet, Terman considered intelligence a genetic trait, and IQ inherited, and it was upon this vision of American elitism that he sold the Stanford-Binet. The test he published and promoted was both a promise and a vehicle to deliver that promise, and America devoured it. From the government to the army to the schools, these tests were used to assess and advance the strongest.

Each test begat another and soon a single organization was created to oversee all standardized testing. The organization was created in part because of the desire to produce a governing elite. In fact, according to Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, founder Henry Chauncey wanted to “categorize, sort, and route the entire population…by administering a series of multiple-choice mental tests to everyone, and then by suggesting, on the basis of the scores, what each person’s role in society should be.” This idea was channeled into a test called the SAT, and the organization Chauncey founded is the Educational Testing Service.

The tyranny of standardized testing

We advance from grade to grade based on test results, and are rejected from or accepted into college based largely on grades and standardized test scores. We are appraised on our ability to answer questions whose responses are either right or wrong, which telegraphs to us that we are either right or wrong. Conditions don’t matter. Your allergy fatigue, the morning announcement from your mother that she’s leaving your father and moving you out of state, your cheating boyfriend, your claustrophobia, even the poorly worded test questions are all beside the point.

Modern standardized testing doesn’t account for the full spectrum of the human being tested. What matters is whether or not you land on that one fixed response, not the conditions under which you’re being questioned. Yet conditions and focus are intrinsically bound. To claim a test is a measure of what one knows without factoring in environment or emotions is to misapprehend humans. Because of this exclusion, tests are not measures of anything other than one’s ability to operate in artificial environments under forced and arbitrary time constraints in a sweaty room proximate to one’s tormentors, victims, crushes, exes, old best friends and frenemies. Until the full spectrum of the human being is considered, tests, of any type, can only measure how skilled a person is at taking a test. Yet, we are shuttled, sorted, routed and categorized based upon a test whose premise has been flawed and whose pretext has been perverted. Every future in America is beholden to this faulty system, but that was never the test’s intention.

I took over twenty-five IQ tests between the ages of eleven and eighteen, but it wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I was properly diagnosed with the condition of my childhood. I had a panic disorder. That’s why I couldn’t learn or retain the same information in the same amount of time as others kids, why I feared leaving my mother, and why I was preoccupied with death and disappearance.

The relief this diagnosis provided was wild, but short-lived. It turned out that my inherent belief about my intelligence was deeply embedded. Even with a proper diagnosis, I felt stupid. My problem was conditional, something a standardized test doesn’t take into account. Therefore, a standardized test couldn’t properly assess me, and yet, it was upon these unreliable results that the educational system evaluated my worth, held me back a year, decided in which section I should be placed, whether a college should accept me, and worse—it generated, promoted and magnified my sense of intellectual self-worth, which has influenced every life decision I’ve ever made.

While I’ve always believed that intelligence comes in a variety of flavors and sizes, my notions were at odds with the message sent throughout my entire childhood: intelligence was knowing facts. Being smart meant having information, and I did not have information. I did not know facts. I knew other things—like the taste of fear was black chalk, and danger felt like someone twisting and stretching my upper chest out like Silly Putty. My intuition was strong but it wasn’t fact-based, and so I learned to ignore what it told me. I didn’t know the answers on the IQ tests, and the questions offered were information-based; therefore, being intelligent meant you had lots of information and being an idiot meant you didn’t.

Information vs. Intelligence

Our society confuses information for intelligence, but knowing a lot of information is not what it means to be intelligent. If you know more trivia than someone else, you are not smarter than they are, you simply know more trivia. And knowing what’s on an IQ test doesn’t mean you are any more intelligent than the person who doesn’t; it simply means you’ve managed to retain more information, and that you are skilled at taking such a test. But what of all the things that aren’t on an IQ test, like empathy and emotion? Having a capacity for those things is also a type of intelligence, but not the sort we prize.

We live in a world that puts a higher premium on facts than feelings, but feelings are conditions and they matter and affect how one retains facts. The two are more intertwined than we admit. We tend to measure and advance those who possess an abundance of information, but of whose feelings we’re unaware, and sometimes we’re shocked when we discover the moral impropriety of measurably “intelligent” people. Having and knowing information in the form of facts is handy and advantageous, but it doesn’t make you an intelligent or ethical person.

We are ever-evolving, fluid creatures, who understand things at different rates, in different ways, which is why there is not one form of art or music. But the Stanford-Binet, the Weschler, the WAIS, and the SAT are IQ tests that, while revised over time, have all gone through a standardization process, relying on a representative sample of the entire population who will eventually take the test. What this means is that we are all expected, on some level, to be the same.

Intelligence is difficult to define; there are many different ways to describe it, yet there is only one way to standardize it. A panel of experts has decided what it is people should know, and they call this information “intelligence.” The IQ test and every other standardized test are reflections of this definition and, usually, they do not relate in any way to the interior life of the person being tested. We cannot all be the same. The fact that sameness is expected feels remarkably eugenic. Perhaps that’s no coincidence, since we’re using these tests the way eugenicists did and not the way they were designed to be used.

Few American children have passed through the school system in the last 80 years without taking the Stanford-Binet or one of its competitors. The story of IQ testing has no end (the fifth revision of the Stanford-Binet is currently in use), but it does have a beginning. If we look all the way back to 1905 and listen to Alfred Binet, we’ll see that the history of testing in this country has been driven by a social agenda, not one invested in advocating on behalf of the children who need alternative help.

If all the standardized tests were based on their original designs, perhaps we would be less ashamed to identify areas of weakness and difference. After all, a test that’s been co-opted to identify and advance intelligence cannot very well be the same test that helps identify weakness. True intelligence cannot be measured because true intelligence is information plus perception, which equals wisdom. This cannot be calculated or contained. The sooner we understand that information and intelligence are not the same, the sooner we can make truly insightful choices.

Much of this material is taken from a nonfiction book Amanda is working on about normalcy, difference and intelligence.

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