SAT, GMAT, GRE: Can intelligence really be ‘measured’?

Published: April 28, 2013

These test scores put a ‘label’ on a candidate for being intelligent or dumb without considering the complexity of the idea of intelligence.

Standardised testing is a system used worldwide to assess a candidate’s ability and thus forms an integral part of the college application process.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) are all known examples of standardised tests.

While universities often state that these tests do not form the main criteria in the decision making process, the reality is somewhat different. Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario in which a candidate has a very low SAT/GRE score but displays an above average extra-curricular record matched by an outstanding personal statement. Won’t the decision maker’s judgment being influenced by the scores?

Decision makers are human beings after all; our judgment of any situation is based on all the stimuli our mind absorbs, much of which is beyond conscious control. According to my personal experience, standardised testing has a number of flaws that put even outstanding candidates at a considerable disadvantage.

High degree of subjectivity

While preparing for one of the tests, the English comprehension passages have always perplexed me. While the text of the passages is sound and well-chosen, the multiple-choice options that follow are not. They involve analytical judgment which differs from person to person. For example, I may draw conclusions that match option A but the examiner may think otherwise. Since most available options are ‘inferential’, they differ from person to person. This explains why candidates do poorly in the verbal reasoning section.

An answer that might seem correct to one is wrong to the other so what is the measure of judgement here?

Time constraints

Although we live in a fast-paced world where snap decisions are important, genius is born without pressure. Some people can perform brilliantly if given decent time (not all the time in the world).

Quantitative reasoning in particular needs to be given more time so that candidates can fully show their true potential and not commit blunders out of pressure. Too much pressure produces mediocrity, not excellence.

Measure of intelligence

I have always wondered whether these tests are an adequate measure of intelligence. For instance, in order to measure intelligence levels in a classroom, a researcher must actively break the term ‘intelligence’ into an elaborated meaning so that he can test each of the indicators separately. How one researcher defines intelligence may differ from the conceptualisation of another researcher.

Given the pattern of standardised testing used for higher education, it can be concluded that intelligence is narrowly defined to include logic, verbal ability, quantitative reasoning, and problem solving. This conceptualisation can be challenged by a broader definition that also encompasses artistic creativity, musical talent, intuitive abilities and such.

Construct validity is, therefore, compromised. Somehow these test scores put a ‘label’ on a candidate for being intelligent or dumb without considering the complexity of the idea of intelligence and the different forms in which it may manifest itself.

Conditions at the time of examination

Performance in a test may be affected by a number of factors, such as the current health status of the candidates, arrangements at the examination centre, or some unexpected stressful event. This may hamper a candidate’s work ability.

While standardised testing does provide a fair idea about a candidate’s abilities, our education system needs to be careful how they used these scores to reach judgements about a candidate’s potential. Each and every individual is special in some way. Our society can best prosper if employers and decision makers at colleges develop an ‘inner eye’ to recognise the special talent an individual has and identify how passionate someone is to succeed.

A person who might have average scores but a die-hard passion to grow and achieve deserves a chance more than a talented person who is short on dedication. A controlled environment will never let a person work to his/her full potential.

Ayesha Sethi

Ayesha Sethi

A graduate from University of London, Ayesha currently works at a multinational organisation in Pakistan. She is the author of 'Islam in Modern Perspective', contributor for the London Connection Magazine, and an amateur poet.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.