Erotic Computing

EC 2.11 (12-2-94)

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.

                 For some dwell in the darkness
                 And others in the light.
                 And we see those where the light shines
                 But of the dark-dwellers, not a sight.
                        Bertoldt Brecht, The Three-Penny Opera

Unsurprisingly, Net discussion of The Bell Curve has risen exponentially these past two weeks. My newsfeed has hundreds of postings to both sci.psychology and rec.arts.books. I'll continue the argument I started in EC 2.9 and see whether I have the sitzfleisch for another session with these issues after the holidays. Today's discussion is a survey of some of the varied reasons why standardized tests are likely to underestimate both the actual (phenotypic) and the potential (genotypic) intelligence of "disadvantaged" persons.

Why Black Americans Test Less Well Than Whites

As one who believes that significant differences in both measured cognitive ability and success in achieving education and prestige in US society are the result of environmental rather than genetic differences between the "races" -- are in fact a demonstration of the ongoing racism of our society -- I think it essential to distinguish several likely results.

Why did the young Moroccans we interviewed and tested in a rural town in the early 1980s do so poorly at structured tests of reasoning, despite their apparent skill at solving complex dilemmas of living in the dusty streets and crowded houses of Zawiya? My own small venture into the literature on culture and cognitive competence[1] involved a goal of the Harvard Adolescence Project -- to collect data on the establishment of meta-cognitive abilities of the sort Western psychological theories assume are universally acquired by the non-retarded during the early teens.

Our charge had come from Jerome Kagan, one of the Harvard faculty who helped to define the Adolescence Project and a major figure in developmental cognitive psychology. Kagan had been one of those the Harvard Educational Review asked to respond to Jensen's original piece.[2] Here's how Kagan pointed us to the issue, as I paraphrase the seminar session he led in the Fall of 1981.

The only major cognitive change after childhood, and it's a big one, is the establishment of Piagetian "formal operations" -- the ability both to solve complex logical problems involving specification of alternatives and systematic elimination of options and to say how one did so, to engage in "meta-cognition." Such formal operational skills are probably necessary, Kagan asserted, to succeed in any complex modern social environment. All the settings included in the Adolescence Project -- an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic, a mining town in Rumania, an Aboriginal settlement in Australia, fishing villages in Thailand and Nigeria, a Kikuyu-speaking town in Kenya, and a rural town in Morocco -- different as they are in ecosystem, ethnicity, and material affluence -- are "complex" and "modern" in this broad sense, as are most of the communities studied by cross-cultural psychologists. How then, Kagan asked, are we to understand the fact that no study of any substantial sample of citizens of any Third World country has shown convincingly that any sizable fraction of them have clear command of formal operations in Piaget's sense? Surely, Kagan argued, this must tell us more about us and our testing than about them and their thinking.

And yet most of the teenagers I tested on what we thought was a "culture-free" measure of problem-solving skill performd at a chance level -- or below, since they would adopt rigid strategies the test was designed not to reward. What a Main Line twelve-year-old could do easily, most of the eighteen-year-olds on my block in Zawiya could not do at all: see the whole structure of a problem, select moves that eliminated the most alternatives and, having solved a problem, say how they did it. Even those high school students who consistently won at the lightening card games with which they passed the long summer vacation afternoons -- games in which the best players count cards -- could not perform an analogous task for me. Even those older adolescents I thought, with some formative years on a different street in an affluent suburb, would have been successful students at Haverford or Bryn Mawr. In test after test it was the same: frightened eyes looking at me, rather than the test materials, as they made mistake after mistake on my simple test . . .

In the 120-page monograph that fired the controversy 25 years ago[3], Arthur Jensen devoted a dozen pages to discussion of the extent to which performance on intellectual aptitude tests can be increased by various interventions. Noting that a first experience with an intelligence test often produces an underestimate of actual IQ, Jensen offered this anecdote from his own experience:

When I worked in a psychological clinic, I had to give individual intelligence tests to a variety of children, a good many of whom came from an impoverished background. Usually I felt these children were really brighter than their IQ would indicate. They often appeared inhibited in their responsiveness in the testing situation on their first visit to my office, and when this was the case I usually had them come in on two to four different days for half-hour sessions with me in a "play therapy" room, in which we did nothing more than get better acquainted by playing ball, using finger paints, drawing on the blackboard, making things out of clay, and so forth. As soon as the child seemed to be completely at home in this setting, I would retest him on a parallel form of the Stanford Binet. A boost in IQ of 8 to 10 points or so was the rule; it rarely failed, but neither was the gain very often much above this. So I am inclined to doubt that IQ gains up to this amount in young disadvantaged children have much of anything to do with changes in ability. They are largely a result simply of getting a more accurate IQ by testing under more optimal conditions (Jensen, 1969, p. 100).

I find Jensen's recollection of his apprentice days rather touching and his conclusion quite surprising. If "disadvantaged" children routinely test over half a standard deviation lower in IQ because of anxiety, poor rapport with the [middle class] tester, and lack of specific attention and problem-orientation set, then perhaps half the observed "deficit" in Black intelligence has just been explained, given the preponderance of disadvantage among African-Americans. It is a rare tester who spends two to four half-hour sessions putting the subject at ease, I suspect; and White middle class testers pose a double problem for poor Black testees. If the tests on the basis of which disadvantaged students are assigned to learning tracks and selected for academic programs tend to be given under non-optimal circumstances, not only will subsequent tests continue to underestimate their abilities but the resulting differences in opportunity will produce large cumulative differences in the education they receive, making their attenuated attained abilities ever less susceptible of remediation.

It is disingenuous of any student of the testing literature to suggest that changes in testing protocol or brief instruction in test-taking would remove the ethnic differences in aptitude recounted with such zest by Herrnstein and Murray, however; and the argument they make about the influence of the impoverished single-parent home as generally a poor setting for acquiring the first stages of cognitive proficiency cannot be dismissed. It's the political implications of the argument that anger me. Under-funded, short-term, one-variable social intervention programs have not undone the consequences of poverty and prejudice in the inner city. Can we afford to address the whole spectrum of race/class interactions in American society? Can we afford not to?

[1]Davis, D. A. (1988). Formal operational thought and the Moroccan adolescent. In J. Valsiner (Ed.) Cultural context and child development: Towards a culture-inclusive developmental psychology. Hofgrefe.

[2]Kagan, J. S. (1969). Inadequate evidence and illogical conclusions. Harvard Educational Review, 39, 2, 274-277.

[3]Jensen, A. R. (1969). How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 39, 1, 1-123.

Next week: Xmas at the lake.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.