Archive for December, 2011


The Reality of Testing Human Beings

As I sit in my chair one day, and across several days, ask 10 different  10 year-olds  this question: “Who discovered America?”. It’s  one of the questions on the INFORMATION subtest of the Wechsler IQ scales for children. It’s a simple “right-wrong” item. Isn’t it? Easy to score?  It should be. But it’s not! Below is what you may well hear as  responses. Decide how you would score the response: right earns one point; wrong earns a zero.

Alison: “God, we learned that in second grade. Mrs. Jones . She was mean. Lessee, discovered America?? Well, the Indians. I mean people say Columbus. But it was really the Indians. (You ask: “So, what’s your answer?”). “Well…Indians. I’ll go with that. “

Greg: ” The Norsemen!…I’m pretty sure. Yeah, that’s it!”

Rene: “Christopher…uh…oh, what’s his name? Christopher…Vespucci? No, No. Oh, god! I KNOW this! I can’t get it! Aw, I don’t know!” 

Benny: “George Washington! Wait. What’d you say? I forgot. (You repeat the question). Oh! Columbus!”

Rosalie: “It begins with a “C”. I never really learned it. Leif Ericson? Jefferson? Something Columbia? I know his first name was Leonardo. I can’t remember. We were never taught it!”

Bill: “America? That’d be, uh , can I  take a guess? Columbus? Naaa. He was another explorer who came over and found, like, the Bahamas. So, I’ll pass…I don’t know!”

Raine: ” I can never remember this! We studied it a loooong time ago. The Pilgrims did, right before Columbus!”

Charlie: “Welp…that’s eeeezee! Vikings. I remember that because Mrs. Dinwiddie showed us pictures of their boats. It gets confusing sometimes, because my kindergarten teacher said the guy’s name was ‘Clumba’. But he was later.

Jim: “Columbus! Christopher Columbus! Is that it?  Just a sec…Yeah. Whatever”

I don’t know how easy it was for you to score these right or wrong. If you score it as wrong, the child gets a zero and is thereby less “intelligent” than the one who gets it right.

Human beings simple don’t do what they’re supposed to do, even when they try their hardest to do so. The sheer variation in these responses is sufficient to demonstrate that no matter how much you STANDARDIZE test items, you can’t standardize  responses to those items. And this “Columbus” question is just one of the many, many items on the 10 or so subtests of the IQ battery. As variations pile upon variations, it doesn’t take long to discover the uniqueness of human beings. But how can this uniqueness be defined and communicated to others? That is the question to be addressed, And I’ll be doing it in many postings to follow. Come along!


The Gift of Testing

I guess I’ve tested over 4,000 children, teenagers and adults. Each has entered my office in varying stages of anxiety or resistance or antipathy, each in due time relinquishing the protective armor of caution, perhaps because each learned early on that I was not to be feared.

In 1969, I tested my first person, a 13 year-old boy, undistinguished, a “typical” early teen guy. But he bothered me. He didn’t do what I expected, didn’t answer the way he was supposed to, became uneasy at easy things, excited by other more difficult things. He had “average” intelligence. But he still bothered me. Something wasn’t right.

This morning, over 40 years later, Noah walked in, a big undistinguished-looking, gawky 12-year-old, shy, circumspect, smiling a wan little smile that quickly vanished when I began to speak to him. His hair looked like it was painted on his head, symmetrical, flat, smooth.

I asked him where he went to school. He said, “Uh, that’d be 7th grade!”  I repeated the question, calmly, reassuringly (as if I’d made the mistake) and he rolled his eyes to the left and said, “Oh, I thought, well, anyway, I go to Midvale.”

Right away, he bothered me. Because I started to think; it’s a habit I’ve never dropped. The questions began: “Why did he misunderstand?” and “Did he misunderstand at all?” and “Did I slur the question?” and “I wonder if he just was distracted for a moment.” and “Does he have a language disorder?” and “Was  he anxious?”

I glanced at his school test-records, his Stanfords; they were “average”, some low, some high but all in the “average” range. His grades were fair to good.

And so he bothered me. After 40+ years at this testing stuff, after meeting with each of the 4000+ for three hours and examining their histories, school records and biographies and talking to their parents and more, you’d think nothing would bother me…or very little. You’d think it’d all be prosaic by now, old-hat. But no. Noah bothered me.

To be more precise, he intrigued me because  he extended to me an invitation to come see what his world was like, what marvelous intricacies constituted his singular version of humanity.  I got a glimpse of his ineffable complexity, right there because he gave me a “wrong” answer.  And as time passed, I began to discover  more: hidden avenues of competence and deficit, a personality that waxed more complex as we proceeded, a presence that transformed itself from the everyday to the exceptional. He presented himself as a gift. He bothered me beautifully.

In future posts, I will describe Noah’s – and many other’s – extraordinariness. And I hope I can convey to you my great fortune in finding the work that I do and the gifts of human uniqueness.


Average IQ – Uninformative and often terribly misleading

On the Wechsler Intelligence Scales for children and adults, an average IQ score lies between 90 and 110. Well, that’s not exactly right. Some assign the average label to IQ scores between 85 and 115.

But it is not the numbers that matter, not at all. It’s HOW they were calculated. Consider: A 19 year old coed, Alice,  obtains an IQ scores of 102. That’s “average”. But that score of 102 represents a composite of at least 10 subtest scores. These subtests each purportedly measures a different intellectual ability. So, for instance, a subtest called “Information” measures a construct referenced as “long term memory” or verbal memory or declarative memory. I’ll call them all “Verbal Memory”. The items on this subtest are designed to draw on this verbal memory. The examinee is asked questions like, “Who was Thomas Jefferson?” or “How many feet are in a yard?” And the questions are arranged in order of increasing difficulty. The more you get right, the higher your raw score. But the raw score is meaningless because it doesn’t define the relative magnitude of an examinee’s verbal memory vis-a-vis a same-age population. To do this, the raw score is converted to a “Scale Score”. And these express the magnitude of the examinee’s verbal memory relative to age peers.

Now a scale score between 8 and 12 is considered average; it falls between the 25th and 75th percentiles.

Let’s say Alice gets a scale score of 10 on the Information subtest. What can we say?  What have we learned? How does this differentiate Alice from others? Or help define her specfic  educational needs?  Very, very little to not at all are the most appropriate answers to these questions.

Bad enough. But worse is the fact that scale scores from 10 such subtests are collapsed into one number called Full Scale IQ. But those scale scores can range from 1 to 19! So Alice might have the following scale scores on the ten subtests: 10, 9, 5, 14, 11, 15, 8, 9, 10 and 7. Add them up, convert them to a full scale score of 102 and Alice turns out to be “average”!!  And recalling that Alice’s patterns of responses to different subtest tasks can vary widely ( a subject I will discuss at length in future blogs), these scores themselves call into question the usefulness of each  of the ten subtests

In short, an “average” IQ can  arise from widely varying subtest scale scores that themselves can arise from widely varying response styles and patterns as different subtests are administered . In too many cases, then, an “average” IQ not only ignores marked intra-individual differences but it can, in doing so, fail atotgether to identify real strengths and disabling deficits.

In later blogs, I will explain how such remarkable variations arise within a single “Average” human being.


Average for whom: That’s the Question

So your son obtains scores in the “average” range on a group-administered, commercial achievement test (think Iowa’s or Stanford’s). You look at his charts accompanying your son’s score report and your eyes blur a bit, what with all the dotted lines, graphs, numbers and terms like percentile or standard score. But you do see that his score is visually in the middle of one of the graphs and that it has been described as “average” by whoever (or whatever) scored the test.

Your next question should be “So what”. Lamentably, the answer to that question is not at all easy to answer. A basic answer would be, “It depends”.

If your son is attending a public school, you can infer that in his class, he is NOT atypical, abnormal.

But suppose that public school is located in a more affluent school district. In this setting, his “average” score nationally speaking may be “below average” relative to his classmates. Students in more affluent  communities are much more likely to be brighter because their parents are more often well-educated, more invested in their children and more involved in their child’s education. So, in this more selective school, the “average” achievement level FOR THE SCHOOL is “above -average” for the national population. His 75th percentile (above-average) score may well be at the 50th (average) FOR HIS SCHOOL (just as a 6’2″ basketball player may be at the 50th percentile for his team BUT the 75th percentile compared to the national population).

It gets worse. If your son is attending an independent school, the “average” achievement level can be the 90th percentile (superior). So his “average” achievement score at the 50th percentile turns out to be “below-average” (<25th percentile) for the independent school. Indeed, his average skill levels put him at a real DISadvantage in an independent school setting. Many, many times I have advised parents to choose less competitive settings so the needless stresses of unrelenting achievement pressures and the mediocre grades that even this child’s BEST efforts produce do not poison  his sense of competence.

Interestingly, since the “average” student in an independent school  population is a “superior” student relative to the national population, the independent school student – after spending his elementary-school years there – comes to think of himself as “just average”.  I’ve heard many a very bright (90th percentile ) independent school student describe himself that way. He hugely underestimates his competence and potentials.

And so we see again, especially in view of what I’ve said in previous postings, the word “average” becoming a “weasel” word, a nonsense term that is best ignored in favor of more meaningful terminolgy. I will address the issue of meaningfulness in testing in future posts.


When the word “average” hurts badly

Jeremy at 9 years of age was altogether immersed in the tasks of assembling small red and white  blocks to duplicate  designs printed in a stimulus manual. He spun the blocks deftly in his fingers, sometimes using both hands to bring blocks together in a near-perfect integration of small motor movements.

Jeremy’s speed and the accuracy of his final products earned him an “exceptional” score (99th percentile) on the IQ subtest called “Block Design”. His speed itself won him “bonus” points awarded for “speed of assembly”. His parents and teachers were told of his score and how its exceptionality disposed him to much achievement and success in domains requiring such ability: mathematics, the sciences, engineering, Later, he was invited to take advanced coursework in science/math. And he prospered, delighting in the exercise of his “gift”.  His parents exposed him to stimuli and learning opportunities that refined and elaborated on his special competence.

Evan, another 9  year-old, was equally enthralled by these block assembly challenges. And he devoted himself to each one. Unfortunately, he kept dropping the blocks just before he placed them on the desk surface where he was working. Frequently, he’d turn a block, by accident, a bit too much, these causing a misalignment of block edges that required correction. At these times, frequent enough to exasperate many a child, Evan seemed undeterred…as if he were quite use to the clumsiness of his fungers. Indeed, on more than one occasion he would apply just a tad too much pressure as he moved blocks together, this “collision” misaligning already-correctly aligned edges which then required repair. But Evan loved the tasks, often exclaiming “cool!” or “that’s neat”  as a new design was presented to him. He got them all right. He produced perfectly accurate designs.

BUT, Evan earned NO bonus points for speed even though he finished them all well before the time limits set for each design assembly. As a result, he earned an “average” score…not because he was less perceptive, less competent than Jeremy. And certainly NOT because he was at all perplexed by the designs. For he knew EXACTLY what to do and how to do it, regardless of difficulty level. He was as expert as Jeremy. But his fingers wouldn’t move fast or deftly; they did not do what he wanted them to do, what he knew they had to do.  Needless to say, his “average” score won him no special consideration, no offers of advanced work in mathematics and science, no recognition of his expertise AT ALL. His teachers and parents were told by the school psychologist that he had “average” non-verbal reasoning…and that was that. Later, because he loved “non-verbal reasoning” tasks so much, he became a highly regarded and exceptionally competent architect. Colleagues marveled at the precision and elegance of his work, especially at how he “took his time” to get everything right in his drawings and models.

Ironic how the “real” world can be so much more competence-revealing and competence-affirming than the educational world that assigned him the label “average” and they dismissed him. Worrisome , however, is the fact that, had Evan been less determined, less inclined to believe in himself, he would never have discovered the delights of his own gift. He would have given up much earlier on.


An “average” score can mask essential facts

There’s a short Intelligence subtest called “Digit Span”.  A string of digits is dictated to examinees and they must repeat the string in the same order as the original string. After an upper level is reached (usually two strings in a row), digit strings are repeated backward by examinees. The resulting score purportedly measures something like “attention span”.  And if this score falls bewtween the 25th and 75th percentiles, it is called “average”.

Joan, for example, got a Digit Span score at the 63rd percentile. She was average…But not so fast. Consider HOW she handled the task.

First, while listening to the “digits forward” series, she stared directly at the examiner, “tracked” the numbers by touching her fingers for each digit said and responded only after she had subvocally repeated the string to herself several times. She accurately recalled enough strings to score in the superior range (the 90th percentile).

BUT, when she had to repeat digits in reverse, her performance dropped off dramatically, so much so that her “digits reverse” score fell to the deficit range (10th percentile). Moreover, she labored much more intensively in the reverse conditions, despite lots of subvocalizing, rarely able to keep the digits in order, even the few she could recall.

Even taking into account that” digits reverse” is more difficult, Joan’s very inconsistent behavior strongly suggests that some underlying “information-processing” system is erratic and unreliable.

BUT, since her final “Digit Span” subtest score reflected the combined forward and reverse scores, she turned out to have an “average” score.  As such, any possibility of an “attention” deficit was effectively eliminated. She was described as “of  average attention”,  the 50th percentile

In fact, Joan’s teachers and parents had reported quite a few attention-related problems. But her “average” Digit Span score eliminated Attention-Disorder as a possible cause.  Indeed, the person testing Joan  concluded that whatever academic problems she was having were from “emotional” conflicts. And she was sent off to therapy.

Yes, “average” can conceal real problems and deficit. The term can also conceal “gifts” as I’ll explain in my next report.


What does average mean?

The word “average” contains little meaning, especially when it is used to describe your child. Just as there is no such thing as an “average” tree or dog or psychologist, there is no average child. So what “average” winds up meaning is something like, “Not” abnormal, atypical or rare. But your child is, in fact, rare. In fact, your child is a singularity, one of a kind, a person who has happened or will happen only ONCE, who thinks, acts, feels and experiences like no one else, whose mind is unique and, for our purposes here, whose learning style, needs and dispositions are exactly one of a kind.

Of course, educational programs, standards and methods are based on the principle that all children learn the same. Some may claim to recognize and address individual differences. But in practice, such individualization is about as rare as your child. It is impracticable and terribly impractical, unless your child is the only student.

Yet, standard psychological and educational testing – on the results of which so many critical educational decisions are based – presumes “average” exists and makes claims based on that assumption. As a result, wholly uninformative statements like, “Clement has average reading skills” or, far worse, “Mathilda is of average intelligence” proliferate.

In future comments, I intend to define the exceptionality of your child and present ways by which a you can begin to define, expand upon and nurture that uniqueness. I hope you drop in to listen. After 40 years working as a diagnostician, I have a great deal to offer.