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.

  • Legend

    Maybe instead of tests we should start using thermometers to measure a person’s intelligence?Recommend

  • BlackJack

    The GRE format underwent significant changes recently, although some of the criticism leveled at it still remains valid. Either ways, these are not ‘intelligence’ tests as the writer seems to think, but aptitude tests – the makers of the test (ETS/ GMAC) perform studies to prove that there is a high correlation between those who have a good score and those who end up doing well in their grad studies/ business education. Naturally there are other criteria apart from the score, so it has nothing to do with the ‘humanity’ of the admission committee, but their assessment of the potential contribution of the candidate to the student pool as well as the skill sets that could be developed further to become valuable diffferentiators for potential employers/ entrepreneurship.Recommend

  • binger

    its easy baby
    just find a college or university
    that don’t require these testsRecommend

  • Junaid

    Sour grapes? Doing well on these tests doesn’t imply intelligence. But doing poorly does imply inability to crack a challenge in life. That is sufficient and reasonable to cast doubt in the minds of admission officers. If you or anyone else is smart, you should be smart enough to crack these exams and get a good score regardless of whether the exam is a good judge of intelligence. Recommend

  • caitlin

    i agree that standardized tests are limited, but you have failed to look at the pragmatic side of international education.
    firstly, those us who work with standardized testing know that it tests a specific type of ability and that’s why it is included as PART of a gamut of assessments, not counted on alone. your example of a student with a poor SAT result but good class marks could be a student who has high abilities but doesn’t test well OR someone who has come through an assessment system that is too low for university levels. how can a university in the US determine the quality of assessment done in a school in another country? most of us here know of examples where rich students have bought their way through school, and Pakistan is not unique in this.
    a good student who does not test well has the essay, class marks, other external assessment options, extra-curricular activities to prove his / her worth outside of standardized testing.
    The standardized testing my high school students sit often helps me determine base level comprehension and skills in English, especially for new students, but they remain a minor part of my assessment methodology. Recommend

  • Applicant

    I’ll repeat the words of an admissions committee member when I talked to him about the issues you just highlighted. He said and I quote “These are not the best methods for evaluating student potential, but these are the only methods available right now”.
    Makes sense. Till someone can design a test which better evaluates candidate ability, standardized tests are the only methods available to admissions officers.
    P.S. Not to sound offensive, but would the author mind sharing her scores here? I’ve noticed that, amongst my friends, those who complain of the unfair nature of standardized tests are usually the people with the lowest scores. I personally have never heard a complaint from a high scorer. This would mean that the complaint is more of a retaliatory move than an objective critique. Just saying, not necessarily true of course.Recommend

  • Another Pakistani

    You are spot on here. All these tests measure what you are able to do in 3 hours based on tricks that you learn in past 3 months. They may judge a person’s aptitude to some extent but can never offer a 360 degree view of a person’s learning ability and intelligence. Recommend

  • Dq

    These tests are nothing more than money making tactics…especially when one is applying for a masters program in a specialized field, what has general GRE to do with judging the abilities of the applicant who has reached upto a level where he/ she has become eligible for applying to a specialized field of study?Recommend

  • Mehr

    It is probably not a perfect system, but can the author suggest a reliable quantitative way to measure ‘passion’ rather than intelligence?Recommend

  • Lajpat Rai Asswani

    GRE these type of tests gives you second chance …some time people have more knowladge but thier grades or gp is low …….this type of give u new hope to live and surviveRecommend

  • HN

    In my view it is not intended to judge a persons passion or intelligence, nor his ability to think out of the box. In fact the aim is to identify the scholastic aptitude required particularly for research. I am not a genius, nor someone who is too passionate about his work, and certainly gave ample time before appearing in the test, but I performed good because of my training to understand literature independently and analyze its details, my ability to work with numbers, and of course a lot of organized practice.. One doesn’t need to relate GRE etc. to potential of career success. It is to some extent, designed for a specific kind of skill required for post graduate education.Recommend

  • Gp65

    These tests do not measure intelligence or passion but certain language, quantitative and reasoning skills and also the ability to perform with a high degree of accuracy under time pressure. All these skills are important for success and hence tested. Regression testing has validated the predictive ability of these tests with regards to the attributes they seek to measure However these are not the only inputs used for admission. The specific traits these tests check for do not have any better alternative at this time.Recommend

  • Ruby

    The worst is of the class is not GRE, GMAT or SAT. It is called CAT. Even if you are damn smart, then the chancse you get in depends only on whether your stars are good that day. Recommend

  • Grad Student

    while the author’s stance on standardized tests is debatable, one of the conclusions of the article, for sure needs everyone’s attention: “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.” This is important because persistence and perseverance are as equally desired qualities in a higher education candidate as intelligence and smartness.Recommend

  • shahi

    More than 70% of the bosses in large companies never took these tests as they did not go to universities. As Helen Keller says:
    Colleges are not a place to go for ideas.

    These days colleges and universities prepare factory fodder rather than free thinkers. Recommend

  • doom

    If you are applying to say “MSc Finance”, it really doesn’t matter much how wonderful an essay you wrote or whether you were Head Girl at school. You just need a 95 percentile on your GRE Math and the requirement is stated clearly. If you find that impossible, then instead of getting upset with the test, students should see it for what it is: you aren’t cut out for MSc Finance and that’s ok. You have just been prevented from sinking yourself into a big mistake. Find what you can do well and take the test requirements as helpful signals. They are flawed yes, but generally they are good predictors of outcomes. Recommend

  • Khan

    In my opinion these tests are a good measure of how good you can adopt yourself to a challenge. They are not necessarily a good test of intelligence Recommend

  • Imad Uddin

    I hate time pressure in an exam! Universities and employers should kno how to interpret a score of a specific exam, simple.:) Recommend

  • Wasim

    Lets assume someone has a die-hard passion for cricket but is an average player, do you think he deserves to play for the national side than someone who is an amazingly talented but maybe isn’t as passionate?Recommend

  • fahad

    Anyone who is considered extremely intelligent in these tests and goes to the best university will never open a start up business and become filthy rich.

    Intelligence is gained by getting into fights and brawls, by taking risks and failing. Not by passing tests. If you want to become intelligent then start working the streets. Almost anyone who is filthy rich in Pakistan (or any other country) was a drop out.Recommend

  • Junaid

    Success by that person with die-hard passion for scores is just TEMPORARY!! That passion fades away when the exam is over!
    For example, if there are two students that appear for a job, one is really talented but has got less scores due to lack of dedication, and the other candidate is so dumb in real but has got excellent marks in exams because he worked day and night to prepare for those exams. So if they appear for the job and if the employer selects a candidate based on scores, definitely he will select that dumb person with good score. So the question is, after getting employed, how much this person will prove productive, because all those scores become meaningless at real workplace!!!Recommend

  • College dude

    I had a 2100 in the SAT, which is a really good score and I took the SAT only once. I had 9As in O-Levels, 5As in A-Levels and extremely good extra curricular activities as well. Currently, I study abroad on a pretty decent scholarship. However, none of my grades determine my intelligence. Education today has nothing to do with expanding human intellect. It makes you into a worker and you are destined to slave away for the rest of your life until you die. I believe that education is useless now. One can easily be self-taught, considering all the extremely good material available on the internet, and you can take risks without getting drowned in student loans. To conclude, it’s time to give up on conventional education; technology is fast and education can not keep up.Recommend

  • Tareen

    I agree. One other factor is that these tests often tend to be quite culture specific in their essay sections, which definitely gives an advantage to US students. I did not do very well in my SATs but was lucky to be admitted to a top liberal arts college. Was an honors student there, went on to do a PhD at a top 5 University and now teach as assistant professor at a top liberal arts college. Point being my SAT score was a poor indicator of the chances of my intellectual success. One other point I would add about the stress of the test. One of the best things in how classes are structured in the US (especially at small liberal arts colleges) is that ALL of a student’s grade does not depend on the final exam. There are a number of evaluations before that (like mid-term, papers, attendance, participation) etc. so that the final exam is only part of a student’s grade. That is a MUCH better system than the standardized tests, or the O Levels, A Levels system of all depending on one exam, which is unfair and more importantly, intellectually unproductive. Recommend

  • Khan

    Sure sure sure. But there’s just one thing: GRE/GMAT/SAT etc. do NOT measures intelligence. They are not designed to measure intelligence or ability. They only test how well you take the test. Nothing more. And they are very useful for college & university admissions when an admissions officer wants to see, for example, how well a a candidate from Pakistan measures against a candidate from South Africa. Due to the varying nature of syllabi and schooling systems around the globe, these standardized test scores are the ONLY way for admissions officers to truly compare students. Personal Statements, transcripts, extra-curriculars, etc. etc. are not exactly comparative indicators and are very very subjective. Anyone applying for admissions should recognize this fact.

    Moreover, admissions do not depend entirely on standardized test scores. Other accomplishments matter much more. What matters least is the “personal statement”. Think from the perspective of admissions officers. They are faculty members with their own teaching & research responsibilities. In each admissions cycle they have to go through hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of applications. They do not have more than 2 minutes to spare at a personal statement let alone guess at the level of effort that went behind it. Some students take months to write a personal statement not longer than two pages (which I think is quite idiotic) while I’ve seen others write it in two (max three) hours and get into Harvard and other great places. Recommend

  • Naila

    In Australia, we have to do the UMAT to get into medRecommend

  • Sane

    I think writer is suggesting a test like given to the candidates of Matric by Board of Secondary Education. The examinees of these tests (examination) are full of passion for cheating and courage of threatening to examiners.Recommend

  • Tahmina

    All these tests are designed to measure competencies not intelligence, so please do not confuse intelligence with competency. These competencies indicate the suitability of a candidate for a discipline however these are not perfect as indicated by many readers. None of the current systems is perfect, the interpretation that in higherr education intelliegnce is narrowly defined excluding intutitive or artistic ability, it s the ability of a candidate to critically engage and reflect on a text. Tests do not put labels on anyone, we do that job ourselves. All candidates sit for a test under similar conditions, and these standarised tests even though these are far from perfect give everyone equal opportunity. Unfortunatly this is the reality of life. And to all those critical of higher education, those who are gifted will excell no matter where they are, but you can count those in numbers, similarly most of the great innovators have been through a multitude of higher educational institutions, remember that as well.Recommend

  • Parvez

    A toddlers school in Karachi had a system where by, at admission time, if you turned up in a BMW your kid got admitted, if you turned up in a rickshaw even the guard would not talk to you…………… there are systems and then again there are systems.

  • Nabeel

    There is one very clear thing about these tests that they aren’t testing any intelligence. Most of the questions are being propose by common test givers and takers to the ETS so everyone month question comes out of the specific pools. The percentile calculation and deviation from tough to the tougher questions allows an individual to go an extra mile. It ain’t about your mathematical skills it’s more about how instinctive you’re in Quantitative measurement.

    P.S:- I do not hold a spectacular academic record, an average student with mixture of good marks and curricular activities with a GPA of 2.89 and GRE score of 1475 i had been enrolled in IIT Chicago. Clearly, not an IIT GPA for the graduate program.Recommend

  • Mehdi

    I am an IIT Chicago alum. Are you currently studying there. Yes one can measure other people’s intelligence. Your major GPA does reflect your understanding of the subject matter. Aptitude tests are one of the many criteria used by admission folks to weed out the bad from the good one. My aptitude score tests were average except Sat II math and physics (700+), as I am not a very good test taker when it comes to standardized testing. Free thinking requires good understanding of the concept for the subject matter under scrutiny. Recommend

  • Reddy

    so, you didn’t crack GRE/GMAT and yet you feel nothing less than touch of a genius …in india if you can not crack GRE/IELS with your left hand then your entire body is unfit for CAT/JMET/GATE and many more(which is unwritten and understanding)…and they don’t test anybody’s intelligence..they look at skill of a candidate ,whether it is on par with their own domestic graduate program. Recommend

  • Thinker

    wrong in context of US. Many of graduates with very good GMAT scores/ mba graduates from top universities do go on to becoming entrepreneurs. Recommend

  • Nabeel

    @Mehdi: I graduated back in 2007 from IIT Chicago. If, GPA were the decisive corse of subject understanding than Einstein Theory of Relativity should be obseleted by now as he was never a good scorer. The point here is that it’s not about scores even folks with lower percentile of GRE/GMAT managed to get admission and do relatively good in their respective professions.

    As, the writer said these tests didn’t evaluate your intelligence i second her on it but cracking these tests before taking it requires intelligence. Google the GRE pool questions you’ll get the trends of the month to score.

    I definitely think is that GRE is a good exam to be appear in to test your own quantitative measurement that too in limited time.Recommend