Quotient Testing in the Context of Scientific Racism, Intellectual and Learning Disabilities

Updated October 13, 2020

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The highly complex nature of intelligence raises substantial questions of the efficacy of intelligence quotient testing, especially when analysing intelligence of people of colour, intellectually disabled people and those with learning disabilities. IQ testing is a psychometric tool that has been weaponised against marginalised communities in the western world for over a century. It has been used to discredit the worthiness of these communities, and often, to justify the inhumane treatment they suffered at the hands of those in power.

This paper will analyse the intertwined concepts of IQ testing and the hereditarian hypothesis, and how this was used against people of colour to claim natural inferiority and innate unintelligence. Further, it will explore how these concepts were researched and explored, and the racial bias, experimental design and poor statistical analyses that shaped the results. I aim to discuss how the poor science supporting this ideology was implemented into social policy causing serious issues for people of colour, immigrants and/or the intellectually disabled. Finally, this paper analyses the current usage of IQ testing today – as a tool used by school psychologists for identifying students that have undiagnosed learning disabilities.

In this paper, I will analyse the IQ controversy from a sociological and psychological lens, ultimately arguing that testing became a widespread social phenomenon largely due to the implications results had on communities considered inferior to the white, abled majority. This is complemented by problematic usage in the IQ achievement discrepancy model and thus, has little place in contemporary society, particularly in circumstances the involve the lives and wellbeing of minorities. Alternatives that aim to determine strengths and weaknesses must be sought after to provide adequate screening in children with undiagnosed learning disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities.

IQ Testing

The first IQ test was developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet in the early 1900s to aid in the identification of children struggling at school (Cherry, 2019). At the time of conception, Binet stressed that the psychometric test was unable to measure a permanent, inherent level of intelligence. Rather, he believed that intelligence was crafted by many factors, many of which are environmental, and incorporated too many skills to be sufficiently analysed in IQ tests (Cherry, 2019). Intelligence is exceptionally complicated with a lot of variables impacting overall intelligence. Binet knew that his testing was unable to determine other types of intelligence not represented by the test. Further, Binet believed that IQ test results should only be used to compare children with similar backgrounds and life experiences (Cherry, 2019). The test was never intended to become a widespread social phenomenon deemed infallible. Access to opportunity and cultural specificity strongly influence scores which interfere with the concept of natural inheritance of intelligence. The nature concept of nature vs nurture was very popular at this time – it was believed that some people were inherently, or naturally, better or more important. IQ testing spread into the United States, it was met with considerable interest and popularity and became a social phenomenon that was often used to justify the concept of natural inheritance, systemic racism and prejudice.

Scientific Racism

IQ testing, especially in the United States, was utilised as an opportunity to justify and inflict further prejudice and discrimination against minorities that were deemed inferior. The concept of nature vs nurture was used during this time, with American psychologists and sociologists insisting that people of colour, especially black people, were inherently unintelligent whilst white people were inherently smarter. Test results were cited as evidence for genetic differences between white and non-white people, concluding that systemic inequalities were a result of genetics.

The hereditarian hypothesis states that genetics are responsible for human character traits including intelligence, social and political issues. Utilised in a time of significant systemic inequality where educational opportunities for people of colour were extremely limited, the hypothesis was cited to claim that the biology of people of colour was putting them into the position of systemic discrimination and racism thus alleviating the responsibility of discrimination from white people.

However, many psychologists and scientists dispute the hereditarian hypothesis as it utilises weak statistical analyses and has a lack of evidence. In a study conducted by Kaplan that aimed to analyse former studies that agreed with the hereditarian hypothesis, they state that it is impossible to find a black person and a white person with the same background as the experience of black people includes a long history of systemic oppression and thus, generational trauma. Therefore, you simply cannot conduct a study comparing black and white people of the same background as it doesn’t exist (Kaplan, 2014). Therefore, studies that claim proven results demonstrating less intelligence in black people have a flawed experimental design and results become unviable.

Although studies continue to be conducted in modern society, many scientists critique not only the concept but their experimental design and analyses. Michael Lieber, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, explains in An Anthropological Look at Race and Intelligence that to conclude racial inferiority in intelligence, researchers would need to prove that the genes responsible for racial traits are also responsible for intelligence (Lieber, 1994). Further, genes code information about proteins and the proteins trigger chemical reactions which produce physical traits. A chain of eight chemical reactions determines skin colour. All genes pathways need to be identified in a potential study to adequately conduct the experiment.

However, alleles produce slightly different reactions and are not indicative of an entire population. A correlation between race and intelligence in one individual is irrelevant if it cannot be established for the entire sample size (Lieber, 1994). This demonstrates the scale of the experiment required to adequately prove the theory. Past research typically measures IQ tests among a particular race and compares it to white people scores. There have been instances of correlation found between race and intelligence, but even then, it is not necessarily causal and cannot be claimed as such without vigorous genetic testing. These correlations can be attributed to lack of opportunity, systemic discrimination and cultural differences. Even in contemporary society, the impact of racism on results are routinely underestimated (Borthwick, 1996).

Despite the lack of evidence, the hereditarian hypothesis became a consistent basis of arguments made by ethnocentrists and eugenicists in the scientific community that encouraged the implementation of IQ testing to dictate social and work opportunities, furthering the social divide between white and non-white people. Many studies were undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s to determine the intelligence of people of colour. It is recorded that the studies were conducted by researchers and psychologists who already believed in racial inferiority and bias impacted the results of the studies. 18 such studies took place between 1922 and 1934 that researched the intelligence of Mexican people.

All studies drew very similar conclusions of low IQ and thus affirming their belief of racial inferiority. The blatantly biased results of the studies were used to tighten immigration policies, particularly for people of colour (Gonzales, 1982). Further, a study by psychologist Carl Brigham in his book A Study of American Intelligence, statistical analyses were implemented to conclude that intelligence in America had faced serious declines due to increased immigration. He claimed the solution was to strengthen social policies restricting immigration and to prohibit racial mixing to limit racial integration (Brigham, 1922).

It should be acknowledged that IQ testing was not responsible for systemic oppression or social structures that disenfranchised minorities – but it was weaponised as a justification for racism and continued oppression (Gonzales, 1982). The gap in IQ scores between white and non-white people served as evidence to naturalise deeply rooted systemic issues. Environmental influences such as access to opportunity, generational trauma, and cultural differences were purposely ignored. Some modern scientists believe that they were aware that their scientific studies were insufficient and there was no evidence to make these conclusions, but they did not care. It wasn’t about the science – it was about finding a justification for horrific discrimination (Dennis, 1995).

According to Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism and the Metaphysics of Race, the hereditarian hypothesis and dodgy scientific studies were utilised by psychologists and/or eugenicists to advocate for eugenics in the form of forced sterilisation against those deemed inferior or feebleminded (Dennis, 1995).

Intelectual Disabilities

The hereditarian hypothesis was widely accepted, and poor scientific studies justified the concept to both the scientific community and the general public. As it gained traction, it impacted more social policy. The US Supreme Court legalised forced sterilisation of people with developmental disabilities in 1927 due to the systematic belief of inherent inferiority (Martschenko, 2018). The victims were identified by low scores on mandated IQ tests. During this dark time in American history, more than 65,000 people were forcefully sterilised and serious trauma was inflicted on already vulnerable communities (Martschenko, 2018).

People with Down’s Syndrome are particular targets to ableist rhetoric regarding intelligence. Their intelligence is often equated to that of a young child, and, that of other races. Even in contemporary society, intelligence in the intellectually disabled is considered to be static and unchangeable. Research shows that children with Down’s syndrome can increase their IQ test scores when encouraged with parental support and opportunities (Borthwick, 1996). However, during the eugenics period in American history, there were no educational opportunities and little support for those with intellectual disabilities – they were almost completely isolated (Dennis, 1995). They were deemed intrinsically unintelligent and thus, unworthy of having a place in society. IQ tests have been demonstrated through the suffering of countless people that reducing a person to a number that dictates their worth and productivity to society, is a cruel practice.

According to the UC Davis MIND Institute, IQ testing has serious limitations determining intelligence in the intellectually disabled. The tests have a floor – a score around 40 in which they are unable to test below. Most intellectually disabled people fall below the floor, and the tests cannot represent them. Instead, the MIND Institute has implemented an alternative approach to determining intellectual capacity. The program aims to identify their strengths and their weaknesses so that their assistance in school can be tailored to their specific needs. They state that IQ testing in special education classrooms do not show any variation in performance due to the score below the floor, incorrectly implying the student has no strengths. Their method can identify strengths and can demonstrate improvement over time, unlike a floored score (UC Davis Health, 2015)

Learning Disabilities

Schools often use IQ testing as a means of determining undiagnosed learning disabilities in the classroom. Prior to the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act in 2004 in the United States, the IQ achievement discrepancy model, where IQ tests were used to establish a discrepancy between the results of the child in question and their peers, was required to diagnose specific learning disabilities (Restori et al., 2009). While the act no longer requires this model to be practised – but it is still very common to be conducted in American schools by school psychologists. This model suggests that IQ testing has a significant place in modern society as a means of allowing struggling children to be identified and helped.

However, some psychologists have raised serious concerns regarding the IQ achievement discrepancy model that can potentially impact struggling children. It is difficult to diagnose young children using the model, thus furthering the gap between the when the difficulties started and when they are identified as needing help (Restori et al, 2009). A study claims that more than 50% of school children that had been diagnosed using the IQ achievement discrepancy model are unable to receive government assistance due to insignificant discrepancies. A considerable number of students who did meet official diagnostic criteria were not identified. They had been left without the assistance they needed and deserved (Restori et al., 2009).


IQ testing has an undeniably problematic history that has inflicted serious trauma on marginalised communities. The testing itself, paired with the hereditarian hypothesis, has been used as a foundation for cruel and unjust policies limiting social and employment opportunities, immigration and the implementation of forced sterilisation on communities deemed too inferior to contribute genetically to society. For decades, IQ testing was employed strategically to further discriminate against and justify mistreatment of marginalised groups. The research was conducted by ethnocentrists with poor experimental design and even poorer statistical analyses which reaffirmed public view of minorities. The historic effects of the weaponization of IQ testing against marginalised communities continue to this day through generational trauma and residual beliefs in the wider community.

Although contemporary society views issues such as these through a more progressive lens, psychologists and researchers are still debating the legitimacy of claims that people of colour are less intelligent due to certain racial groups consistently scoring lower than their white peers on average. The current most widely accepted theory in the scientific community is that lack of education, opportunity and resources which is often intensified by generational trauma has the most significant impact on testing scores. Further, most psychologists agree that lower scores in marginalised communities are not a reflection of an innate lack of intelligence.

The debate regarding the accuracy of IQ testing is still ongoing. Binet was the first to express these concerns and never intended for it to become a definite indicator of intelligence. Most psychologists in modern society agree that intelligence incorporates many aspects, and some declare that as not all of these aspects are tested through IQ testing, it cannot give an accurate result. However, school psychologists in the United States still widely use the IQ achievement discrepancy model to identify children with undiagnosed learning disabilities and claim it is the most effective indicator. Researchers determined that this model was harmful as it was ineffective for young children and often misidentified students who required assistance.

IQ is incredibly complex and likely cannot be measured completely by current IQ tests. Dismantling institutionalised scientific racism and ableism within the IQ controversy is essential if IQ tests will continue to be conducted. Alternative testing, such as those used for people with intellectual disabilities that fall below the floor in IQ tests, must be sought after, created and employed to adequately help vulnerable communities identify strengths and weaknesses in their work. I believe that moving away from IQ tests as a complete indicator is essential to the efficacy of treatment for those with learning and intellectual disabilities. Further, this reduces the influence of the hereditarian hypothesis in modern society. Potentially, IQ testing can be used as supplementary testing in some circumstances, but ultimately has no substantial bearing on determining intelligence as a whole.


  1. Borthwick, C. (1996). Racism, IQ and Down’s Syndrome. Disability & Society, 11(3), pp.403-410.
  2. Dennis, R. (1995). Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race. The Journal of Negro Education, 64(3), p.243.
  3. Gonzalez, G. (1982). Racial Intelligence Testing and the Mexican People. Explorations in Ethnic Studies, 5(2), pp.36-49.
  4. Kaplan, J. (2014). Race, IQ, and the search for statistical signals associated with so-called “X”-factors: environments, racism, and the “hereditarian hypothesis”. Biology & Philosophy, 30(1), pp.1-17.
  5. Lieber, M. (2019). Chicago Tribune – We are currently unavailable in your region. [online] Chicagotribune.com. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-10-23-9410230254-story.html [Accessed 27 Nov. 2019].
  6. Martschenko, D. (2018). The IQ test wars: why screening for intelligence is still so controversial. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-iq-test-wars-why-screening-for-intelligence-is-still-so-controversial-81428 [Accessed 20 Oct. 2019].
  7. Restori, A., Katz, G. and Lee, H. (2009). A Critique of the IQ / Achievement Discrepancy Model for Identifying Specific Learning Disabilities. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 5(4).
  8. Siegel, L. (1989). IQ Is Irrelevant to the Definition of Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22(8), pp.469-478.
  9. Silverberg, C. (2008). IQ testing and tracking: The history of scientific racism in the American public schools: 1890–1924. University of Nevada.
  10. UC Davis Health, D. (2019). IQ testing in individuals with intellectual disability. [online] UC Davis Health. Available at: https://health.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2014-2015/06/20150618_IQ-testing-Hessl.html [Accessed 02 Nov. 2019].
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