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Educators from Carolina Friends School in Durham explore the relationship between health and education.


CAROLINA FRIENDS SCHOOL is an independent Quaker school serving students 3-18. Contact the school at:

4809 Friends School Road
Durham, NC 27705
Telephone: ( 919) 383-6602


Caroline Hexdall, PhD, is Early School/Lower School Learning Specialist at Carolina Friends School and a licensed psychologist. A native of Lawrence, Kansas, Caroline’s professional path includes a PhD in school psychology; a fellowship—focused on individuals with developmental disabilities—at the Center for Development and Learning in Chapel Hill; 10 years’ work as a clinical scientist at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at UNC; consulting for school psychology for the NC Department of Public Instruction; and independent consulting work emphasizing the practice of mindfulness.

Just What Does an Intelligence Test Tell Us?

By Caroline Hexdall, PhD

Many parents and teachers become concerned about their children’s or students’ performance in school. A natural area to investigate is the child’s level of cognitive functioning in order to rule out a significant or even a mild deficit in this area. Importantly, this area should be carefully investigated. In general, diagnoses of learning needs are best done when multiple sources of data are used; keeping the child at the center the whole time is critical. Intelligence testing is one useful diagnostic tool, but it is important to understand what an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) measures and how to interpret that data. Below are clarifications of two common misunderstandings.

Caroline Hexdall, PhD

Misunderstanding 1: A Child’s IQ Is a Sure Predictor of How He Will Succeed in Life.

The first problem with this statement is that if you were to ask 10 people what success is, you probably would get 10 different answers. Second, IQ is an estimate of a child’s cognitive ability at the time of testing. Generally, IQ estimates become more and more stable as the individual gets older. This means that a child’s estimated IQ at age 5 is less reliable and valid than the estimated IQ score of that same person at age 50. So, the validity of its predictability of “success” varies some. This is not to say, however, that the IQ test administered at age 5 cannot be trusted. An IQ test at any age, as long as administered appropriately and interpreted by someone who is trained, has value. It just doesn’t hold all the value. Third, an IQ is an estimate, albeit a good estimate. It is still just a number, not a sure predictor. The IQ is best presented as a number within a range: “I am 95 percent confident that the child’s IQ is between 97 and 109.”

Intelligence is a construct that is defined in many ways, including but not limited to: how well someone adapts to his or her environment; problem solving ability with new (emphasis added very purposely, more on this later) problems; and to some extent, a person’s general fund of information (e.g., word definitions, knowledge of facts, etc.). Then there is Emotional Intelligence—a very important construct typically not measured by traditional IQ tests. Daniel Goleman made the term popular in the early 1990s to reflect the idea that understanding one’s own emotions as well as others’ emotions is equally as important as being able to solve problems typically found on an IQ test. I couldn’t agree more.

Misunderstanding 2: I Can Train My Child
to Do Well on an IQ Test.

Any psychologist (particularly school psychologists) reading this statement will likely visibly cringe or let out an audible “eeek!” The emphasis added in Misunderstanding #1 on new problems is very important because if children are trained, coached, or taught how to take an IQ test, the problems that are presented to them are no longer new. So, now the psychologist is not testing how well the child handles new problems but rather how well the child remembers solving one particular problem—a very different task for the brain. It also provides very different information that may lead to a different intervention strategy that ultimately may not be what the child needs.

Moreover, it overemphasizes the importance and role one test can have in a child’s life. Rather than being viewed as a tool to better understand how a child thinks (a means to an end—which is a good intervention for the child), it is viewed as an end in and of itself. This can lead to great stress for a student and ultimately more anxiety around test taking. As you may be able to see, in the long run, such a practice ends up hindering more than helping. Intelligence tests are important tools for learning more about how individuals think, but they must be used with careful consideration of the individual and purpose.