Scoring Higher on Intelligence Tests?

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Reader’s Question

As a child I took the Wechsler IQ test (WISC) and got a 156; it was also validated a second time. I went through significant issues as a child and suffered severe PTSD, and when I was tested again my IQ had dropped to 127 (also on the WISC); this score was not validated a second time, but was accepted. After receiving counseling for 3 years I took the test again and got a 138. This was in the beginning of the school year and I was on some anxiety medication, along with other meds for physical problems (antibiotics, etc.). I’m now 17 and being pushed to take the adult Wechsler (WAIS) test. I am not on any medication and am at a very stable point in my life.

I just wanted to know if my IQ could possibly go back up to the original score I had as a child, or even close, and any info on how to get there.

Psychologist’s Reply

Intelligence and intelligence testing have been a very popular concept in western culture for the past 100 years. While we have excellent ways to test intelligence, the reality is that intelligence tests measure what we think intelligence is. Psychologists’ definition of intelligence has been evolving, as have the tests that measure what we have defined. In 1969, Educational Psychologist Arthur Jensen said, “Intelligence, like electricity, is easier to measure than to define.” To better illustrate this idea, here is an absurd but simple example: if we decided that height was a measure of intelligence, we would use height as our intelligence “test” and would ultimately begin to see only the tallest people on college campuses or earning higher degrees. We have the perspective to see how invalid that concept is, but we must be aware of our own biases and cultural constructs that define intelligence, shape the tests, and influence the meaning of test scores.

Psychologists conduct assessments for a variety of reasons (such as cognitive or social/emotional functioning), but we always include a number of specifically selected tests in an assessment battery. The score from one test, such as the Wechsler, must be evaluated within the context of the other test findings and observations rather than taken as an absolute score on its own. The Wechsler is viewed as the “gold standard” in intellectual tests and is used widely for children (WISC-V) and adults (WAIS-IV). However, most psychologists report a range and a description of functioning rather than a static number of one’s intelligence. Part of the reason psychologists report ranges is supported in your description of the variance in your own test score. These tests take unpredictable variables (such as a test taker having a bad day) into account, but as you have experienced, the scores can vary widely -– especially among children.

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It sounds as if you have taken the Wechsler at least three times, and are considering taking it again, but are concerned about raising your score. For anyone in a similar situation, it might be worth reflecting on a few questions.

First, I’m wondering about the purpose of the testing -– is it for some type of placement or accommodation? Psychologists typically do not administer intelligence testing just for the sake of someone knowing their score. Who is pushing you to take the test again, and what would happen if you refused? Given that you have taken the Wechsler three times already, many psychologists would consider administering an alternative (such as the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities) to reduce any inflated score due to your familiarity with the test.

Second, I’m wondering about the importance of this score for you. As for many of us, our intellect is a large part of our self-concept. Having a number might make us feel validated about our intelligence, which may be part of the reason people take online “intelligence” tests that really have very low reliability or validity. What does a high score mean to you, and what would happen if your score weren’t as high as your childhood score? It might be helpful for you to consider your reactions before agreeing to take the test again.

Finally, I’m wondering what other data you have to support your intelligence. What are your strengths? What are you really good at? What interests do you have? In what areas are you not as strong? How do these fit with your own personal goals for school, work, and your passions in life?

If you decide to take the test for reasons that are helpful for you and your goals, I would encourage you just to get a good night’s sleep and eat well before you take the assessment. You might want to visit with the mental health professional who has been helping you with any anxiety issues to discuss strategies in this (and any) test-taking situation.

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