Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Commentary on:

"New methods for the diagnosis of the intellectual level of subnormals"
Alfred Binet & Theodore Simon (1905)

"The uses of intelligence tests"
Lewis M. Terman (1916).

Henry L. Minton, University of Windsor

© 1998 Henry L. Minton
All rights reserved.

The writing styles of Binet and Terman are notably different. Binet is cautious, adhering to the immediate purpose of mental tests for diagnosing the mentally retarded. Terman offers a broader mandate in which the full range of individual differences in mental ability would be assessed. Terman, using a rhetorical style of exposition, thus is willing to make broad claims about the use of mental testing. Among his claims are the prognostication that testing will reduce crime, reduce prostitution thereby raising morality, preserve the national gene pool (by segregating the mentally defective), and identify the future national leaders (gifted children).

Terman's hyperbole is accompanied by a set of explicitly stated assumptions regarding the nature of intelligence. This contrasts with Binet's more tentative position. Their different approaches are most clearly demonstrated in their views about etiology. Terman assumed that intelligence tests measured innate ability, a point of view shared by the other American testers who revised the Binet-Simon scale. Binet, on the other hand, believed that while there were genetically determined upper limits, intelligence could also be significantly affected by environmental influences. This difference in interpretation had significant implications for how mental tests were to be used. If the tests were measuring innate ability, as Terman contended, then it was possible to make long-range predictions based on test performance. However, if the tests were assessing intellectual functioning that was malleable within limits, as Binet posited, then such functioning could be influenced by environmental intervention. Binet viewed mental tests as diagnostic tools; therefore, in working with retarded children, he developed special training methods, called "mental orthopedics," which were aimed at improving learning skills. Consequently, test performance would also be improved.

The Stanford-Binet was developed to assess the full range of individual differences in intelligence, thus enabling the schools to develop specialized programs. Such programs would allow each child to progress at his or her own rate--whether the rate was rapid or slow. With respect to mental deficiency, Terman pointed out that mental tests were already being effectively used to identify the degree of retardation. It was therefore possible to decide upon the type of instruction suited to the training of the backward child. Mental tests would also make it possible to detect the milder degrees of mental defect. This would correct the tendency of the traditional use of medical diagnosis to overlook the majority of higher-grade defectives, the so-called "feebleminded." Both Terman and Binet agreed on this point.

In discussing the value of mental testing for identifying mild retardation, however, Binet and Terman held contrasting views. Binet saw the mental tests as diagnostic tools that could target such children for special compensatory education programs that would improve their academic performance and even, in some cases, enable these children to be channeled back to mainstream classrooms. Terman, on the other hand, was concerned with the need to identify the mildly retarded so that they could be segregated in special institutions. In this respect, he reflected the commonly-held view, particularly in Britain and America, about the "menace of the feebleminded." Reflecting the impact of evolutionary thinking, the problem of feeblemindedness was perceived to be a symptom of the rising tide of degeneracy. The lower classes with their inferior heredity were reproducing at a faster rate than those of superior breed. At the time, therefore, Galton's eugenics program of selective breeding held great appeal. Terman and the other American exponents of testing believed that mental tests could be utilized to control degeneracy by detecting the higher-grade defective.

The Galtonian paradigm also pointed to the value of mental measurement in identifying those at the upper end of the ability distribution. Just as the feebleminded might go undetected without the use of mental tests, so might the genius. According to Terman, it was essential to identify genius because this was the potential resource for leadership. Once children of superior intellect were selected by mental tests, they could be prepared through the appropriate education to fulfill their potential. The progress of civilization would be based on the advances made by creative thinkers and leaders in science, politics, art, and, morality.

Terman also believed that through the use of intelligence tests it would be possible to study the effects of heredity and environment on mental development. In the first chapter of his 1916 monograph on the Stanford-Binet (the selection included here), he posed the following question: "Is the place of so-called lower classes in the social and industrial scale the result of their inferior native endowment, or is their apparent inferiority a result of their inferior home and school environment?" (Terman, 1916, p. 19). In a subsequent report, based on a sample of about five hundred schoolchildren who were given IQ tests and classified by their teachers into five social-class groups, Terman concluded that children of higher social classes make a better showing on the test primarily because of their superiority in original endowment. In line with his belief in biological determinism, the testing data simply confirmed the expectation that the children of higher social-class parents would be better endowed than those children reared in slums and poverty.

Regarding heredity and environment in relation to racial differences in intelligence, Terman in his introductory chapter queried: "Are the inferior races really inferior, or are they merely unfortunate in their lack of opportunity to learn?" (Terman, 1916, p. 20). In a subsequent chapter, he offered the following response, given in the context of discussing the low IQ scores of two boys of Portuguese extraction:

It is interesting to note that. . .[these cases] represent the level of intelligence which is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come. The fact that one meets this type with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods. The writer predicts that when this is done there will be discovered enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture. (Terman, 1916, pp. 91-92)

Indeed, the massive mental testing data of World War I picked up on Terman's prognostication of racial differences but the hereditarian interpretation of Terman and the army testers would be challenged.

With the publication of the Stanford-Binet, Terman had become a highly visible figure in the mental testing movement. It was therefore not surprising that he was called to serve on a committee that had been assembled at Vineland, New Jersey, in the spring of 1917 to devise mental tests for the army. The United States had entered World War I and Robert M. Yerkes, the president of the American Psychological Association, spearheaded the contribution of psychologists to the war effort. Yerkes, who had developed his own version of the Binet, chaired the testing committee, which was composed of the leading American test developers. Terman brought with him a new group test of intelligence that had been developed by his doctoral student, Arthur S. Otis. The Otis test served as a basis for the construction of the army group tests. While serious questions have been raised about the significance of the psychologists' contributions to the war, there is no doubt that the war provided an enormous boost for the mental testing movement. Approximately 1.75 million men were tested, and on this basis recommendations were made with respect to job placements or immediate discharge from the army.

After the war, Terman seized upon the contribution of the army tests to military efficiency and predicted that they would soon be universally used in the schools. To this end, in collaboration with Yerkes, he was able to secure funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to adapt the army tests for school use. Working with a committee of testers, the "National Intelligence Tests" for grades three to eight were developed and ready for use in 1920. In 1922 Terman, as chairman of a National Education Association committee on the use of intelligence tests in revising elementary education, published a book with the committee that extolled the use of testing for reorganizing schools so that students could be classified into homogeneous ability groups. Terman's earlier call, in 1916, for the widespread use of IQ testing to sort schoolchildren into a hierarchical tracking system had come to fruition with the wide adoption of group testing in the schools during the 1920s and 1930s. His hopes for special recognition and programming for the gifted were also realized, in part through the adoption of the tracking system, but also through his own longitudinal study of a cohort of gifted children in California, which he began in 1923 and was continued after his death in 1956.

The hereditarian interpretation of tested intelligence that Terman and other American mental testers advocated was challenged in the early 1920s when the results of the World War I testing were widely disseminated. In particular, critics raised questions about the assumption that the tests were measuring innate intelligence. These critics pointed to the cultural bias of the tests that placed individuals with little education or immigrants who had recently migrated to the United States at a distinct disadvantage. Thus, it was environmental lack of opportunity rather than innate ability that accounted for the racial and ethnic differences reported in the army testing, differences that demonstrated that Afro-Americans and Americans of Southern and Eastern European origin had relatively low tested intelligence. By 1930, with the rising criticism that the army testers had failed to account for cultural bias, those testers most closely associated with the report of racial-ethnic differences recanted their views. At least, with respect to racial differences in IQ, the hereditarian argument was put to rest until it was revived in the 1970s with the controversy surrounding Arthur Jensen's hereditarian interpretation of racial differences.

The nature-nurture debate over tested intelligence, however, was not put aside with respect to American schoolchildren. Terman, who was not directly involved with the controversy over the army group differences became the leading advocate for the hereditarian interpretation of IQ differences among schoolchildren. In 1928 and 1940, he took part in published debates on the nature-nurture issue. In these debates, the central issue was whether enriched environmental experiences could significantly raise IQ scores. The 1940 debate was especially contentious and drew considerable attention among psychologists and educators involved in testing. The environmentalist interpretation was championed by a group of researchers at the University of Iowa who had conducted a series of studies reporting marked increases in IQ scores among children who had been exposed to such intellectually stimulating intervention programs as preschool experience and adoptive home placement. George D. Stoddard, the Iowa research director, argued that the evidence from the Iowa studies supported an environmental conceptualization of tested intelligence. To buttress his position, he noted that he was carrying on Binet's legacy of mental testing. Stoddard had spent a postgraduate year of study in 1922 at the University of Paris where he had contact with Simon. According to Stoddard, the Iowa data was consistent with Binet's advocacy of using mental tests as diagnostic tools of present intellectual functioning. As such, they could assess the effects of educational intervention programs. If children were exposed to intellectually stimulating experiences, their tested intelligence would show a notable increase and this is exactly what the Iowa results demonstrated. In reaction, Terman and his fellow hereditarian advocates argued that the Iowa research was inconclusive because of methodological flaws. There was thus nothing to indicate that IQ tests were appreciably affected by environmental effects. The nature-nurture debate had reached another inevitable impasse.

The established practice of mass IQ testing in the schools with the aim of making long-term predictions regarding intellectual potential continued well into the 1960s. The Galton-Terman hereditarian interpretation of tested intelligence thus maintained its dominance over the Binet-Iowa environmentalist point of view. In the 1960s, however, in the context of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, the Iowa tradition of studying the effects of environmental enrichment was taken up again. Researchers used tested intelligence as an index of the effectiveness of compensatory educational programs. A decade later, in the conservative climate ushered in by the election of Richard Nixon (who, coincidentally, had been a subject in Terman's longitudinal study), the environmentalist position was challenged. In essence, the contrasting views of intelligence by Binet and Terman continue to be debated and continue to reflect the social and political forces that fuel the debate.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fancher, R. E. (1985). The intelligence men: Makers of the IQ controversy. New York: Norton.

Herrnstein, R. J. & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New York: Free Press.

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

Jacoby, R., & Glauberman, N. (Eds.). (1985). The bell curve debate: History, documents, opinions. New York: Random House.

Minton, H. L. (1984). The Iowa Child Welfare Research Station and the 1940 debate on intelligence: Carrying on the legacy of a concerned mother. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 20, 160-176.

Minton, H. L. (1988). Lewis M. Terman: Pioneer in psychological testing. New York: New York University Press.

Sokal, M. M. (Ed.). (1987). Psychological testing and American society: 1890-1930. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wolfe , T. H. (1973). Alfred Binet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.