UW News

June 14, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: Alfred Binet’s IQ test, 1905

UW News

With students huddled over spring quarter finals campuswide, the latest podcast in the Documents that Changed the World series seems particularly timely: It’s about intelligence testing.

In the series, Joe Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online.

This time, Janes tells the story of lawyer-turned-psychologist Alfred Binet and the 30-question intelligence test, “gauged to what would be ‘normally’ expected at certain ages,” he created with collaborator Theodore Simon that led to the Binet-Simon Scale for measuring intelligence.

Binet published the scale — unleashed it upon the world, one might say — in 1905 in a journal he founded and edited called L’Annee psychologique. The scale became widely used, and a version is still in use today. In fact, the modern pervasiveness of standardized testing is what drew Janes to the subject.

“The standardized test has become such an integral part of many aspects of our society, especially now in education with a greater focus on assessment and accountability, but also in employment, certification, even the military,” he said. “And while lots of people know about the criticisms about bias and fairness of the test, not many know its roots.”

Janes said he found Binet an “intriguing character … not a dynamic sort of guy, more a homebody, who spent years analyzing his own two daughters and their development, presaging the work of Piaget and others.” He added, “I did feel sorry for the girls, though, constantly tested and compared to each other.”

The testing continues, Janes said in the podcast, and “the numbers rule: IQs, SATs, state achievement tests and by extension, credit scores, actuarial tables, and on and on.”

And he noted, “That bubble you fill in so carefully quickly becomes a pigeonhole.”

Janes continues to research and record new installments. The podcasts also are available at the iSchool website and on iTunes, where the series has passed its 35,000th download. His presentation at Town Hall Seattle is available for viewing at UWTV.