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Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests

Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial

Ulric Neisser

Test-Taking Sophistication

The first large-scale application of IQ testing occurred during World War I, when psychologists employed by the U.S. Army tested more than one million raw recruits. A generation later, World War II psychologists found that the draftees of 1941-45 were achieving substantially higher scores than those of 1917-18. This rise--now considered as an early manifestation of the Flynn effect--seemed easy to explain at first: The draftees of World War II were better educated and far more familiar with mental tests, which by then had become an accepted part of American culture. This explanation seemed plausible enough at the time, but that was half a century and 15 IQ points ago. For how many generations can we continue to appeal to increasing sophistication about tests?

It is true that teaching today has become increasingly geared to certain kinds of achievement tests, and many students have learned test-taking strategies that were less widely known in the 1940s. But this hypothesis, like most others that appeal to the effects of schooling, predicts that the largest gains should appear in subjects most closely related to school content. Why then do the greatest increases appear on abstract-reasoning tests such as the Raven? Moreover, even children who take the very same test a second time usually gain only 5 or 6 points by doing so, which seems to set an upper limit on the effects of test sophistication. In short, increased familiarity with tests in general cannot fully explain the Flynn effect.

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