Intelligence Tests

Intelligence is a general mental capability that involves reasoning, planning, solving problems, thinking abstractly, comprehending complex ideas, and learning quickly from experience. The need to operationalize and make useful the construct of intelligence in educational, clinical, and employment settings led to a proliferation of standardized intelligence tests. Standardization refers to the development of consistent administration and scoring practices and predetermined guidelines regarding the interpretation of test scores.

Intelligence tests measure various abilities that may include auditory and visual memory, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, conceptual and abstract reasoning, perceptual and motor processing, spatial reasoning, sequential reasoning, and attention and focus. Most measures assess multiple ability areas and often include both verbal and nonverbal reasoning tasks, although purely nonverbal measures also exist. The most frequently used individually administered intelligence tests are the Wechsler series of scales and the Stanford-Binet.

Intelligence and its relationship to educational achievement and future success is complex and may be influenced by cultural factors. Understanding the potential impact of socioeconomic status, stereotype threat, and other variables related to one’s racial or ethnic group may be vital in obtaining an accurate estimate of an individual’s intelligence. This entry discusses the potential impact of culture in intelligence testing, specifically (a) intelligence tests and their use with diverse racial and ethnic groups, (b) culture and alternative forms of intelligence, (c) contextual and cultural considerations in measuring intelligence, and (d) culture and applied assessment.

Intelligence Tests and Their Use With Diverse Racial and Ethnic Groups

Persistent discrepancies between racial and ethnic groups on standardized intelligence tests have been interpreted based upon a deficit model (i.e., lower scores are due to deficiencies). The degree to which an individual does well on an intelligence test is determined, in part, by what he or she has learned in his or her cultural context. Cultural context determines, in part, what constitutes intelligent behavior. The impact of these considerations becomes salient as these measures are used to classify and track students for special programs (e.g., gifted, special education).

All intelligence tests yield racial and ethnic group differences, particularly on verbal scales. Nonverbal tests of intelligence (e.g., Universal Nonverbal Intelligence Test) provide an alternative to verbally based tests. These nonverbal measures yield smaller racial and ethnic group differences when compared with verbal measures. Nonverbal measures include tasks tapping symbolic and spatial memory, analogical reasoning, and spatial reasoning. These measures are considered to be culturally reduced but not culture-free tests.

Many intelligence measures are standardized to yield an overall mean of 100 with a standard deviation of 15. Scores for particular racial and ethnic groups include Whites/Caucasians, 100; Blacks/African Americans, 85; Hispanics, midway between Blacks and Whites; Native Americans, approximately 90; and Asians and members of the Jewish community, above 100. These numbers reflect only averages, and the differences within each racial and ethnic group clearly exceed between-group differences.

In addition to overall intelligence score differences, variations in ability profiles are also noted. Ability profiles refer to the pattern of scores obtained across various subtests or areas. For example, Native Americans and Hispanics score relatively higher in nonverbal reasoning in comparison to verbal reasoning. Asians possess relative strengths in numerical reasoning and nonverbal reasoning in comparison to verbal abilities. The profile for Blacks/African Americans has been less consistent, but some studies have revealed higher verbal reasoning abilities in comparison to visual. Cultural explanations have been posed to justify these profile differences as cultures reinforce particular forms of ability. On some intelligence tests (e.g., Wechsler series), extra points are awarded for quick performance on particular tasks. Not all cultures, however, emphasize speed. Indeed some would prioritize perseverance and meticulousness. A number of cross-cultural studies have found group differences in defining “intelligence.”

Culture and Alternative Forms of Intelligence

Intelligence can be expressed in a number of ways; therefore, different forms of intelligence have been identified in the literature. Howard Gardner’s work identified the existence of multiple intelligences, including the following: interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and spatial. His theory specifically acknowledges the importance of culture in determining which abilities will be valued in various contextual settings.

Social intelligence encompasses social awareness and social facility. Social awareness refers to having empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy, and social cognition. Social facility includes synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern. Each of these domains requires cultural understanding and sensitivity to operate effectively in the social environment.

Emotional intelligence is defined as the abilities to (a) perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion; (b) understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and (c) regulate emotions to enhance emotional and intellectual growth. The literature indicates that given that emotional responses are learned within a cultural context, understanding the complex nature of emotional intelligence requires understanding of cultural background.

Measures have been developed to assess these different domains of intelligence. The formats of these tests range from self-report paper-and-pencil instruments to behavioral indicators, including responses to scenarios.

Contextual and Cultural Considerations in Measuring Intelligence

A number of contextual and culturally linked variables have been identified that impact performance on intelligence tests. These include variables related to the individual being assessed (e.g., socioeconomic status, home environment, stereotype threat) and variables that pertain to the measures themselves (e.g., test bias, cultural loading, cultural equivalence, differential item functioning).

Researchers have debated the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) in predicting intelligence. Variables addressing SES have included parental occupation, school attainment (i.e., years of schooling completed), family income, and home atmosphere (e.g., cultural activities, reading materials). In general, results indicate that when SES is controlled (i.e., equated), the differences in intellectual performance between Whites and people of color are reduced. There is evidence that the correlations between SES indicators and intelligence may vary for different racial and ethnic groups.

Studies addressing the relationship between intelligence and home environment indicate that stimulating and nurturing home environments yield intellectually bright children. Home environment refers to the learning experiences provided within the family context, including reading to the child, providing play materials, academic/intellectual aspirations for children, language development models (e.g., emphasis on use of language, opportunities to enlarge vocabulary), and provisions for general learning (e.g., opportunities to learn inside and outside the home).

Stereotype threat (i.e., anxiety regarding one’s performance on an ability test based upon stereotypes of his or her racial or ethnic group membership) has been applied to intelligence testing. This anxiety is salient when a negative stereotype (e.g., “Blacks are not intelligent”) may be confirmed by one’s performance and not by one’s ability. Stereotype threat has been shown to lower the standardized test performance for groups whose stereotypes are linked to inferior abilities.

Test bias refers to the existence of systematic error in the estimation of some true value of test scores related to group membership. Bias is addressed empirically through studies of validity (i.e., construct, content, predictive). Validity refers to whether a particular test measures what it purports to measure. If a test is valid for some groups and not for others, then it is biased. Test bias with respect to racial and ethnic group membership is cultural bias. Most well-standardized intelligence tests have withstood challenges of cultural bias. To prevent cultural bias, test developers may invite expert panels to review item content during the test development process, recruit standardization samples that reflect proportional sampling of various racial and ethnic groups based upon the national census, and identify specific reliability and validity procedures pertaining to particular racial and ethnic groups.

Cultural loading refers to the fact that all tests are developed within a cultural context. Therefore, they are inherently “loaded” to reflect the knowledge, values, and conceptions of intelligence for the cultural group upon which the test is based. A test can be culturally loaded but not culturally biased.

Cultural equivalence refers to a number of critical considerations in ability testing. For example, the content of the test items should be familiar to all racial and ethnic group members. The language and content of the test should have similar meaning for different racial and ethnic groups. The ability being examined should have equal relevance for different cultural groups.

Differential item functioning has been used to formulate alternative methods of scoring to address racial and ethnic group differences on aptitude measures. One such scoring method is based upon the cultural unfamiliarity hypothesis. Items on tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) include “hard” or “rare” as well as “easy” vocabulary words. Easy verbal items touch upon more culture-specific content and may be perceived differently depending upon one’s cultural group. Harder items, on the other hand, are less ambiguous and therefore will be perceived similarly by members of all culture groups.

Application of Cultural Considerations to Intelligence Testing

The problems that arise when culture is not considered in the process of intelligence testing are well documented. In the 1960s and 1970s disproportionate numbers of Black and Spanish-surnamed students were identified as retarded based upon standardized intelligence measures. Many were identified as “six hour retardates” given their limited academic skills during the school day, with higher-level survival and adaptation skills demonstrated in their communities. Court cases have challenged the use of intelligence tests with students of color.

Professionals must provide services to immigrants and refugees using translated versions of tests and interpreters. Intelligence tests have been exported to other countries and renormed and revalidated. To ensure appropriate assessment practices, clinicians must consider the examinee’s cultural background and experiences and understand the limitations of intelligence tests. An examiner must always strive to be better than the tests used.


  1. Freedle, R. O. (2003). Correcting the SAT’s ethnic and social-class bias: A method for reestimating SAT scores. Harvard Educational Review, 73, 1—12.
  2. Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of social relationships. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Helms, J. E. (1992). Why is there no study of cultural equivalence in standardized cognitive ability testing? American Psychologist, 47, 1083-1101.
  5. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.
  6. Valencia, R. R., & Suzuki, L. A. (2001). Intelligence testing and minority students: Foundations, performance factors, and assessment issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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