Sunday, February 13, 2011

20th Century 20 - 17

How many quizzes do you take a year? And which ones do you take seriously?

Some people probably take a magazine relationship quiz to heart, but most of us don't. How about one that determines if you're a special needs student?

Or the SAT?

Archimedes applied numbers to experiments. When he stepped in a tub of water he saw the water level rise. So had thousands of others, maybe millions. But Archimedes assigned a number to that rise in water level, then came up with a formula, and a predictive model. Archimedes quantified the natural world. Without this critical connection science would not be possible.

Alfred Binet applied this principle to psychology and intelligence, while a professor at Stanford, Lewis Terman, popularized it. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale is more commonly known as an IQ test.

Not surprisingly, given 20th century trends, the IQ was originally intended for education. The SAT really is the child of Binet. It was given to soldiers in WWI. Its descendants are obsessed over the world over. In many societies your test will determine your future. Better memorize those formulas.

The idea is as old as the Confucian bureaucracy in China, many thousands of years, that is. But as in that case, some have always been quick to point out that test scores show you only one thing: how well you take the test. Correlations to intelligence, merit, or whatever, are not being shown. That's why so many of those meritorious Chinese ended up corrupt or leading coups against their leaders. It seems that being able to discuss the Annals had little effect upon being a good leader, after all.

As we've learned with data input and computers, you only get out what you put in. A developmental psychologist related to me how a few years back one of these aptitude tests designed to get steadily more difficult ended up with most people flunking question three. Out of two hundred questions, that's a pretty big mistake, and it threw things off for a whole year of students, just as each year the SAT seems to need to throw one or two questions out (although that's seemingly getting rarer).

Binet never intended any of this. Terman, however certainly did. But his goal was more in line with eugenic purposes. A grave reminder of the danger of assigning a person a number.

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