Friday, January 6, 2012

Meritocracy, testocracy, jobs, and IQ

An old news piece, “Court OKs Barring High IQs for Cops” (9/8/2000) was circulated a bit last week via internet exchanges relating to ed policy and teacher bashing.
A man whose bid to become a police officer was rejected after he scored too high on an intelligence test has lost an appeal in his federal lawsuit against the city.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld a lower court’s decision that the city did not discriminate against Robert Jordan because the same standards were applied to everyone who took the test...

Jordan, a 49-year-old college graduate, took the exam in 1996 and scored 33 points, the equivalent of an IQ of 125. But New London police interviewed only candidates who scored 20 to 27, on the theory that those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.

...The average score nationally for police officers is 21 to 22, the equivalent of an IQ of 104, or just a little above average...

Curious about the IQ figures, I hunted down a 2002 report which contains charts of IQ scores associated with specific professions: “Meritocracy, Cognitive Ability, and the Sources of Occupational Success,” by Robert M. Hauser (92 pp., 1.23 MB). This was a working paper issued by the Center for Demography and Ecology. The author is currently the Director of Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I haven’t yet read the entire paper, but expect that readers who are interested enough will do so. In the meantime, here are two charts from the report which show the IQ distribution for occupation groups, along with some excerpts from the text. The figures given for police officers are the same ones mentioned in the news piece above. The paper was released what seems like eons ago, in the first months of NCLB, so it’s especially interesting to read the author’s projections.

 Click to enlarge the images, or go to original document for a better view.

Men's IQ Distributions for Occupation Groups (p. 90 of pdf)
Women's IQ Distributions for Occupation Groups (p. 89 of pdf)

[Introduction] Meritocracy, Ability, and the Sources of Occupational Success

Despite occasional references to Michael Young's (1958) satyrical essay, The Rise of the Meritocracy [see HERE],and periodic public interest in the place of intelligence in society, students of social stratification mainly ignore cognitive abilities and their consequences. Neither is there any sign that sociologists are actively considering the larger issues raised by Young’s essay, namely, what would be the political and social consequences of equalization of opportunity and by universal use of ability or achievement tests as tools of social selection? Perhaps this lack of attention follows appropriately from the facts that children’s opportunities are anything but equal and that cognitive mediocrity dominates our public life...

By ignoring cognitive abilities, sociologists are open to the accusation that they have failed to consider the full range of factors affecting social and economic success, and they leave the field open to advocates who claim, with remarkably thin evidence and questionable motives, that cognitive ability is or will become the key variable in social stratification. Such claims are revived periodically, for example, in the wake of Arthur Jensen’s (1969) paper, "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” and, more recently, in the controversy surrounding The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray 1994). It will happen again, possibly encouraged by consequences of test-driven educational reform. In my opinion, the best way to prepare for the next round will be to have the facts well in hand, well in advance...

In this paper, I review some features of the psychometric argument and evidence commonly offered to support it, with particular emphasis on the relationship between cognitive ability and occupational standing... There is no evidence that cognitive ability is the central variable in the process of stratification, but there is ample reason for concern that recent and prospective changes in the structure of American education will raise its importance. All of my evidence is drawn from the U.S., and I offer it partly as encouragement for other scholars to address similar questions in their own societies and cross-nationally. (pp.3-4)

In reading this review, I hope that no one will draw the mistaken conclusion that I think stratification research should focus on mental ability or abilities to the neglect of other variables. It is not clear, except through the unfortunate history of social Darwinism (Gould 1981; Gould 1928), why the idea of merit should be identified so closely with mental ability, as distinct from many other conditions and traits other than social origins and schooling that improve the chances of social and economic success. Among these, for example, one might list ambition or drive, perseverance, responsibility, personal attractiveness, and physical or artistic skills or talents, along with access to social support and to favorable social and economic networks and resources. To be sure, cognitive functioning plays an important role in the occupational structure of complex societies, but it is only one among the several identifiable factors in achievement beyond the initial conditions of race, gender, geographic location, and socioeconomic origin. [pp. 12-13]
On the basis of the evidence reviewed here, I think it is fair to conclude that the traditional psychometric literature on cognitive ability—popularly resurrected in The Bell Curve—vastly overstates the case for the role of IQ in the stratification process. On the other hand, to say that the case has been overstated—even that it has been overstated with great lapses of scholarship and with racist overtones—does not say that there is no place for cognitive ability in our understanding of the stratification process. Both as defense against excessive claims on both sides of the “IQ debate” and in pursuing the scientific enterprise, we ought to seek and produce new evidence of the role of cognitive abilities in social stratification.

Perhaps a more compelling reason to invest in studies of the effects of test performance on social stratification is the growing role of tests in the schooling process from elementary school onward. The issue is not “meritocracy,” but “testocracy.” That term, in my opinion, is more descriptive of the dystopias that Michael Young described and towards which we may now be headed...

There is a powerful movement for more extensive use of high school exit exams with passing levels set well above minimum competence... A reasonable speculation is that these exams will encourage early school dropout, especially among African-American and Hispanic youth, and that they will create new barriers to post-secondary education and training and to labor-market entry. High stakes exit exams will also deny high school diplomas to large numbers of non-minority students, and we have yet to learn the social and political consequences of that reversal of the widespread expectation that the children of the middle class will at least graduate from high school.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)–deemed “N-CLUB” by its critics–introduces a federal mandate for testing of all schoolchildren in grades 3 through 8... There is every likelihood that new and old tests will be used to raise rates of grade retention, which are already too high in many places. These tests will often be used in violation of professional standards of appropriate test use...and with negative longterm consequences for academic achievement and high school completion...

There is much more to be said about the reasons for the current public fixation on tests as a tool of educational reform (Linn 2000) and about its immediate consequences for the educational system. As sociologists, we ought also to take a longer view and start thinking now about how to measure, analyze, and assess the long term consequences of test use for life chances... [pp.57-59]

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