Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students

“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”

But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.

Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.

Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.

Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.

Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.

In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.

Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”

This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.

To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.

Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”

Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.

Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.

Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.

“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.

But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.

Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.

There simply is no right way to do those.

See Also

University of Georgia professor explains his ‘Asperger’s Advantage’ and disabling assumption of disorder, Peter Smagorinsky

Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, Tham Khai Meng

Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano


7 thoughts on “Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students”

  1. Labeling is pervasive and destructive in education. I’ve witnessed it through my years of teaching. I try to help people understand the damage they are doing. I’m often met with “It’s not that bad” indifference or “How dare you call students fragile and weak” indignation as though my opposition to labeling is somehow at best misguided and at worst an attack on the self-esteem of students every where. Thanks bring this piece to my attention. I will try to incorporate it in my repertoire of persuasion artifacts.

    Keep doing what you do. I really appreciate your approach to challenging topics.

  2. When I was seven, more than 63 years ago, I was labeled — after taking one of those godlike tests designed to decide the future fate of a child — as severely retarded and my mother was told I would never learn to read or write.

    Fast forward 63 years, and a miracle must have taken place because I learned to read and write and became an avid reader. I also earned a BA in journalism with a 3.85 GPA in my major, and later an MFA in writing, and I am the author of four award-wining books and an award winning short story, and my first novel was even a best seller on Amazon with about 300 reader reviews (80% are labeled as positive reviews). Oh, and I was an international, national, state and regional award-winning English and journalism teacher for thirty years in the K-12 public schools in California.

  3. This is a serious problem that does not go away. I recently had an unpleasant dream about the one “IQ” test I took – in the 1950’s. It’s going to be even worse for children coming up today because of the emphasis placed on it and the propaganda aimed at parents.

  4. Thank you once again Paul Thomas! Just from personal experience I have suffered endlessly at the fate of labels and testing. But instead of rejecting it as Neil Gaiman did, I felt for years how inferior was my intellect. I recently found my score on a MAT test for graduate school which was so low I imagine I would never have been accepted. Yet I did okay, had a productive life despite all those painful experiences. And I do mean painful. Once again you have put the proper perspective on a pervasive and cruel system.

  5. I don’t know. I’m with you 100% as far as IQ tests and other standardized “educational” tests. But what about labels/diagnoses that come with a treatment plan? To use a medical example, your doctor doesn’t know whether to give you an antibiotic or an inhaler until she first diagnoses your cough as either bronchitis or asthma. Similarly, with learning disabilities, I can see the problem with getting stuck on the label, but often there are specific methods that help kids with specific deficit areas. In fact, if a kid is facing a learning challenge (say, he hasn’t learned to read while all his peers have been reading for a year or more), it can be a relief to have a diagnosis, to be able to say, “I’m not stupid, this is what my problem is”. I mean, it’s not like not having the label made him feel any less stupid – he know he wasn’t keeping up with his peers in reading before he was labeled dyslexic (or whatever).

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