Beyond Mensa -- what are IQ tests good for?

January 30, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

Surf the Internet long enough and you'll come across a pop-up ad offering an intelligence, or IQ, test.

There are a variety of IQ tests online. Some test academic knowledge. Others are topical, such as an emotional intelligence test or a trivia IQ test.

But aside from qualifying people to join Mensa, a society for bright people, what are authentic intelligence tests used for?

An intelligence test isn't necessarily going to indicate whether someone is a genius, a good leader, or good with relationships, experts say.

But the tests do have some practical uses. School psychologists use intelligence tests to help identify learning disabilities for children and some employers and branches of the military use them to screen potential employees and enlistees.


Tailoring education to students

School systems such as Washington County Public Schools use intelligence tests to help determine whether a child needs special education assistance.

Washington County uses two tests - the fourth edition of Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, also known as WISC-IV, as well as a Woodcock-Johnson achievement test - to help identify students who might need special education assistance, says Mike Markoe, director of student services and special education for the school system.

WISC assesses the test taker's intelligence; the Woodcock-Johnson test measures how the test taker applies their knowledge to problems in math, English and other academic subjects. If a student scores significantly higher on the intelligence test than on the achievement test, that indicates there is something preventing the child from applying knowledge the way he or she should, Markoe says.

There might be a learning disability interfering with the child's potential, he says.

The school system does not use intelligence tests to determine if a child is talented and gifted or, as the school system now refers to such children, advanced-level learners, says Betsy Donohoe, supervisor of advanced programs.

The Maryland State Department of Education does not see the labels gifted and talented as limited to those with intellectual promise or ability, Donohoe says.

Advanced-level learners are defined by having a capacity for high performance intellectually, artistically or creatively, or having an unusual leadership capacity when compared to their peers, Donohoe says.

Bruce Bracken, a professor of education with The College of William & Mary, once worked as a school psychologist and has written intelligence, personality and language tests. He says intelligence tests also are used to help determine whether a child is developing at a normal rate, whether a person would benefit from psychotherapy and whether a person is smart enough for a paticular job, usually upper-management positions. Some employers also use personality tests to screen hires.


One benefit of taking an authentic intelligence test versus a random online test is the large number of subtests an intelligence test can cover, says Andrew Carson, senior project director for the Stanford-Binet intelligence test published by Riverside Publishing.

These subtests can help target a problem a person is having when trying to learn or work, Carson says.

A student's results on the WISC-IV and Woodcock-Johnson subtests help school officials determine what assistance a student needs, Markoe says.

The fourth edition of the Wechsler intelligence test uses 10 core subtests and five optional subtests to evaluate verbal reasoning, working memory (such as short-term memory), perceptual reasoning and processing speed, says Lawrence Weiss, vice president of psychological assessment products for Harcourt Assessment Inc. Harcourt publishes the WISC tests.

For instance, subtests about vocabulary, similarities and comprehension, as well as optional subtests about information and word reasoning, are used to gauge verbal reasoning.

The fourth edition of WISC was revised to help assess natural intelligence, Weiss says.

Tests for adults

In addition to intelligence tests that help identify whether an adult has a learning disability, there are intelligence tests used by some employers and by the military, experts say.

They aren't usually called intelligence tests, says Linda S. Gottfredson.

Gottfredson is an education professor at University of Delaware who has written widely about fairness in testing and relevance of intelligence in different domains of life such as schools, jobs and health.

The military uses the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which Gottfredson says helps determine how well a recruit learns and what kind of military jobs they could do. While military officials like to refer to it as an aptitude test, it mostly measures intelligence, she says.

Terry Howell, senior content manager for, insists ASVAB is more of an aptitude test. is a private Web site that keeps military members, family members and retirees informed about benefits.

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