Tests are harder, students’ scores are rising, and yet it doesn’t really mean we’re evolving into a more intelligent society. A new study published in the journal Intelligence, reveals compounding evidence that students are becoming better at standardized test taking, but not necessarily becoming any smarter. Researchers from King's College London studied 64 years of test scores from 48 countries and found a rise in IQ, but it isn’t what it seems.

The average intelligence rose 20 IQ points since 1950, which would lead us to believe that means the students of today are smarter than their grandparents once were. Developing countries made far more strides in intellectual improvements, especially in China, India, and the United States, which is a reflection on an increase of classroom time and newer teaching methods. However, rising IQ scores and school performance are not equal. Instead, students have just become better at handling the pressure of tests and tactics to improve performance.

The recent study is adding to an accumulation of proof that throughout the years IQ scores have been improving, which is evidence of the "Flynn Effect." Psychologist and philosopher James Flynn, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, found the trend over 30 years ago when analyzing old American IQ test manuals that changed every 25 years. "And I noticed in all the test manuals, in every instance, those who took the old test got a higher score than they did on the new test," Flynn said.

It isn’t that we’re necessarily smarter than grandma and grandpa were in the early 1900s, according to Flynn, but more that we are being challenged in a different way. Problem solving and reasoning abilities have improved, but the brain’s general functionality is no more superior than our ancestors. However, this highlights a significant problem in test taking, where the tests are getting harder and students are getting better at taking them — but it doesn’t mean they’re any smarter.

A History of Standardized Failure

"Today we have a wider range of cognitive problems we can solve than people in 1900," Flynn said. "That's only because society asks us to solve a wider range of cognitive problems. People in 1900 had minds that were perfectly adequate for remembering first cousins once removed, they were perfectly adequate for ploughing a farm, they were perfectly adequate for making change in a store. No one asked them to do tertiary education."

Now students are working with computer mouses instead of gardening hoes, and their test scores reflect the brain’s changes. If American students took the tests administered a century ago, the scores would be significantly higher. If the students of the past could time machine their way to 2015 and take a test, they would score an average IQ of 70, which is the cut-off mark for people with intellectual disabilities.

"It's like a weightlifter and swimmer. They may have the same muscles when they were fertilized in the womb, but they would have different muscles at autopsy, wouldn't they? So today at autopsy, certain portions of our brain, for example those which use logic and abstraction, would have been exercised more and look differently. Other portions of the brain would have shriveled a bit."

This hits on a sore subject for teachers, students, and administrators alike. Standardized testing fails because students’ non-standardized brains are being trained to take tests instead of improve their overall intellect. It may look like they’re getting smarter, but really they’ve just built bigger muscles in certain test-taking cognitive areas, instead of improving intelligence. Different parts of the brain are being exercised specifically for test taking, but without an indication that the students have become smarter. The weightlifters and swimmers of the classroom are developing muscles at different rates in different areas in the brain, which leads to a consistent standardized problem. It was Albert Einstein himself who said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Children are raised under the authoritative guise that the statewide tests they face each year are what determines if they are one of the smartest or dumbest compared to their peers. In a society with ample research that says humans are not all built as the same learners, interpreters, test takers, or even instructors, the same testing persists to no avail. Teacher union leaders are consistently ignored, yet often outspoken on the current testings' inability to effectively assess a student’s intelligence. Instead of students improving different sections of their brain, their test-taking skills section is doing tremendously well — but does the mark of a good test taker signify intelligence? While tests morph into greater challenges, the prevailing ignorance of standardized testing is the only constant that remains.

Source: Morris R, Wongupparaj P and Kumari V. A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of Raven’s Progressive Matrices: Age groups and developing versus developed countries. Intelligence. 2015.