IQ Tests and Poverty

Recently I read Poor Economics, which is excellent at doing what it promises: explaining the experimental data we have for what works and does not work in alleviating third world poverty, with some theorizing as to why.  If that sounds interesting to you, I heartily recommend it.  I don’t have much to add to most of it, but one thing that caught my eye was their section on education and IQ tests.

In Africa and India, adults believe that the return to education is S-shaped (meaning each additional unit of education is more valuable than the one before, at least up to a point).  This leads them to concentrate their efforts on the children that are already doing the best.  This happens at multiple levels- poor parents pick one child to receive an education and put the rest to work much earlier, teachers put more of their energy into their best students.  Due to a combination of confirmation bias and active maneuvering, the children of rich parents are much more likely to be picked as The Best, regardless of their actual ability.   Not only does this get them more education, but education is viewed as proof one is smart, so they’re double winners.  This leaves some very smart children of poor parents operating well below their potential.

One solution to this is IQ tests.  Infosys, an Indian IT contractor, managed to get excellent workers very cheaply by giving IQ tests to adults and hiring those who scored well, regardless of education.  The authors describe experiments in Africa giving IQ tests to young children so that teachers will invest more in the smart but poor children.  This was one of the original uses of the SATs in America- identifying children who were very bright but didn’t have the money or connections to go to Ivy League feeder high schools.

This is more or less the opposite of how critics view standardized testing the US.  They believe the tests are culturally biased such that a small sliver of Americans will always do better, and that basing resource distribution on those tests disenfranchises the poor and people outside the white suburban subculture.  What’s going on here?

One possible explanation is that one group or the other is wrong, but both sides actually have pretty good evidence.  The IQ tests are obviously being used for the benefit of very smart poor children in the 3rd world.  And even tests without language can’t get around the fact that being poor takes up brainspace, and so any test will systematically underestimate poor children. So let’s assume both groups are right at least some of the time.

Maybe it’s the difference in educational style that matters?  In the 3rd world, teachers are evaluated based on their best student.  In the US, No Child Left Behind codified the existing emphasis on getting everyone to a minimum bench mark.    Kids evaluated as having lower potential than they actually do may receive less education than they should, but they still get some, and in many districts gifted kids get the least resources of any point on the bell curve.

Or it could be because the tests are trying to do very different things.  The African and Indian tests are trying to pick out the extremely intelligent who would otherwise be overlooked.  The modern US tests are trying to evaluate every single student and track them accordingly.  When the SATs were invented they had a job much like the African tests; as more and more people go to college its job is increasingly to evaluate the middle of the curve.  It may be that these are fundamentally different problems.

This has to say something interesting about the meaning of intelligence or usefulness of education, but I’m not sure what.

Links 5/22/15

Effective Social Justice Interventions: this is a great example of using EA as a technique to address areas the EA-as-philosophy sphere hasn’t touched.

The Last Day of Her Life:  a psychology researcher’s decision to and process of ending her life as her Alzheimer’s progresses.   Fun fact: state-sanctioned euthanasia requires you be mentally competent and have less than six months to live.  Alzheimer’s patients are mentally incompetent years before they die of the disease.

The (crime-related) Broken Window Theory states that low level visible crime (graffiti, litter) leads to more crime, of all varieties. It is most famous for being Rudy Guilani’s method for reducing crime in New York City.  My understanding was that that had been debunked, and NYC’s drop is crime was caused mostly by demographic trends.  But some researchers did some fairly rigorous tests of it and it held up.  Caveat: they tested visible crime’s evidence on other crimes of similar magnitude, not escalations like theft.

This week’s “beautiful theory killed by an ugly gang of facts” award goes to the meditation chapter of The Willpower Instinct, which promises fantastic benefits from the very beginning.  In fact it says that meditating badly is in some ways better for you than meditating well, because it is the practice of refocusing yourself after you become distracted that is so beneficial.  Unfortunately none of the studies cited show that exact things, and what they do show is a small effect on a noisy variable, in a small sample.

[I don’t want to be too hard on The Willpower Instinct.  It encourages you to do your own experiments and stick with what works, I found some of it helpful, and it’s good for getting yourself into a willpower mindset.  It’s just scientifically weaker than it would have you believe.]

Sine Rider: if xkcd was a video game.