The IQ myth

The glory days of IQ testing began during World War I, when two million American men were sorted out through the first mass paper-and-pencil form of the IQ test, newly developed by Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford.

The triumph of IQ testing led to what Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist at the Harvard School of Education, calls the "IQ way of thinking": "that people are either smart or not, are born that way, that there's nothing much you can do about it, and that tests can tell you if you are one of the smart ones or not. The American SAT test for college admission is based on the same notion of a single kind of aptitude that determines your future. This way of thinking permeates society." [Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (1983) New York: Basic Books]

Despite being debunked by numerous studies since World War I, the IQ myth persists, as does the myth of subliminal learning. Both are profitable myths for their practitioners.

In 1980 I was, as far as I know, one of the first researchers to show that IQ scores are, contrary to the IQ Myth, unstable. If you check on will find Petty MF, Field CJ (1980), “Fluctuations in mental test scores”, Educational. Research, 22(3), pp. 198-202.

What Professor Field and I found was radical in 1980 because it refuted the IQ myth. We discovered that mental test scores, including mathematics, English and Stanford Binet IQ scores measured over a period of four years for two hundred grade school students were remarkably unstable. We had believed, as Dr. Gardner puts it it: “that people are either smart or not, that there’s nothing much you can do about it, and that tests can tell you if you are one of the smart ones or not”. We also thought as other psychologists did, that IQ scores were stable over time.

What we found, much to our surprise, was that IQ scores for these students, from one year to the next were remarkably unstable, with scores in one year correlated on average only 0.5 with scores in the following year. But a correlation of 0.5 indicates that only 25% of IQ scores in one year are predicted by scores in the previous year. This is not stability. As Daniel Goleman said: “At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success”. [Daniel Goleman, 2006, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books] We found that IQ in one year predicts only 25% to IQ in the year following.

The Guardian (UK) reports the 2011 findings of a study carried out by Sue Ramsden of University College London. The study was supervised by Professor Cathy Price.

The Guardian reports rather breathlessly that “individual IQ scores rose or fell by as many as 21 points, a substantial difference – enough to take a person of "average" intelligence to "gifted" status, or vice versa”.

The findings of our research, published in 1980, are reiterated in a large scale study by the American Psychological Association. The APA reported in 1995 that “IQ scores do change over time. … The average change between age 12 and age 17 was 7.1 IQ points; some individuals changed as much as 18 points.”

So the findings of the University College study were already known 31 years ago and these findings were reiterated by the APA seventeen years ago; this is hardly news.

The Guardian article also says that: “IQ is thought to be stable across a person's life. Childhood scores are often used to predict education outcome and job prospects as an adult. But the study suggests scores are surprisingly variable.”

Robert Sternberg from Oklahoma State University said: "A testing industry has developed around the notion that IQ is relatively fixed and pretty well set in the early years of life. This (London University) study shows in a compelling way that meaningful changes can occur throughout the teenage years." Our study in 1980 also showed in a compelling way "that meaningful changes can occur" in children and adults, as did the research studies reported by the American Psychological Association in 1995.

Bates College Dropped the SAT

Bates College, a leading US Liberal Arts college, dropped all pre-admission testing requirements including the SAT in 1990, ten years after our research was published. Bates College admits anyone who applies for entry to the college, without testing them for suitability. No tests for admission such as the SAT are required, though SAT results may be submitted to the College, but there is no penalty for not submitting SAT scores.

Adopting a voluntary stance to testing for admission did Bates College no harm at all. Bates is still one of the most innovative and highly ranked liberal arts colleges in America. According to a recent article in the New York Times, "It is still far too early to sound the death knell, but for many small liberal arts colleges, the SAT may have outlived its usefulness." (New York Times, 31 August 2006)

As a result of ongoing studies at the University of California, President Richard Atkinson presented a proposal in February 2001, to drop the SAT I requirement for University of California applicants. It now appears that the SAT requirements will be dropped next year. According to the U of C "admissions policy change for 2012", beginning with students applying for the fall 2012 term, SAT Subject Tests no longer will be required and students who do not submit subject test scores will not be penalized during the review process"

What the Bates College experience, soon to be trialed by the much larger and more influential University of California shows, is that anyone who wants to go to college should be admitted whether or not they have passed SAT or any other college entry exams.

At Bates not only do students admitted without SAT testing score just as high in coursework as SAT-qualified students, but also the number of minority students admitted at Bates College has increased and the number of applicants has doubled, all this without any drop in academic standards.

IQ and related tests like the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the English 11+ are very bad at predicting performance in university. The SAT, the English 11+, the Australian HSC, the German Abitur and the French Baccalaureate are not fair tests of ability to perform in university.

In fact the educational testing industry has been discredited for years but it is entrenched, it makes money, and it will take a long time to die. It is flourishing in New York and other states for political reasons. In 1996, New York set up tests for fourth and eighth graders in order to measure whether schools and teachers were doing their jobs.


The SAT was for many years known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is the most widely used test in the USA for admission to college or university. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken the SAT has become known by its initials.

On its website: The College Board says:

The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a suite of tools designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that's fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.

None of this is true. The SAT tests may be designed “to assess your academic readiness for college” but they do an extremely poor job of it. And the exams are not “fair to all students”, in fact they are fair to perhaps 4% of students. The SAT and SAT Subject tests do not “keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century”.

Research cited by the aptly named FairTest shows that the SAT is a very poor predictor of success in college:

"Validity research at individual institutions illustrates the weak predictive ability of the SAT. One study (J. Baron & M. F. Norman in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Vol. 52, 1992) at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the power of high school class rank, SAT I, and SAT II in predicting cumulative college GPAs.

Researchers found that the SAT I was by far the weakest predictor, explaining only 4% of the variation in college grades, while SAT II scores accounted for 6.8% of the differences in academic performance. By far the most useful tool proved to be class rank, which predicted 9.3% of the changes in cumulative GPAs. Combining SAT I scores and class rank inched this figure up to 11.3%, leaving almost 90% of the variation in grades unexplained."

What these studies and mine show is that Bates College and the University of Californian are right in abandoning the SAT. Other colleges and universities will no doubt eventually follow suit though the political mood in the USA presently favors testing.

The reason why IQ is not a good predictor of academic performance or anything much, is that IQ is not stable. People who decide they want to perform well as a student in school or university work hard on their studies; as a result their IQ increases. IQ is not given at birth, it is not set in concrete, those who work hard at their studies develop the high IQ they need to excel in school.

University admissions tests are similar to IQ tests, they are not valid measures of ability to perform in university. They should be abandoned, as Bates College has abandoned them.

Author's Bio: 

Author's Bio:
Dr. MICHAEL PETTY Ph.D. is an authority on accelerated learning, IQ, Neuro Science and brainwave entrainment. He has a BA from Durham UK, an MA from Calgary and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was a Canada Council Doctoral Fellow and his 1980 research on change in IQ scores, published in the British Journal Educational Research is still cited in Psychological texts. His latest book is Michael Petty, IQ Unlimited, Amazon Kindle. Visit Dr Petty’s website at