Educational Achievement and Intelligence 2

The previous post in this two-part examination of the relationship between educational achievement and intelligence focused on the questions “what is intelligence?” and how can we define it? Keeping in mind definitions of both intelligence and achievement may be socially constructed, this post looks at three broad explanations for their relationship: positive, negative and agnostic.


This explanation argues we don’t know if there is a real relationship between intelligence and achievement for two reasons:

Firstly, there is no generally-agreed definition of intelligence so we don’t know what is being measured.

Secondly, even if we select a quantifiable subset of intelligence there is no great consensus over how it can be reliably and validly measured.

Further problems arise if intelligence is conceptualised as a relationship – something fluid and dynamic created by individuals as they go about their lives and expressed in different ways and contexts – rather than as something people have; a quality that has a certain permanence. This position suggests intelligence is a capacity developed through cultural practices and ways of learning, rather than a set of abilities with which we are born. As Kaplan argues “Intelligence is difficult to define precisely, but we can all agree that it refers to intellectual ability as opposed to intellectual achievement”; people can, in other words, be intelligent without necessarily being able to demonstrate their intelligence by passing exams.


This explanation argues we can assume IQ tests measure significant aspects of intelligence in the form of skills relating to various cognitive functions; these include the ability to solve mathematical problems or understand logical arguments. Since these skills are very similar to those valued in both education and the workplace it would make sense to test the relationship between intelligence and achievement in this way. From this position IQ clearly correlates positively with educational achievement:

• Deary et al (2006), for example, found a 0.8 correlation (1 = a very strong, possibly causal. relationship and 0 = no relationship) between “Cognitive ability tests taken at 11 and national school examinations taken at 16″. Their main finding was “the large contribution of general mental ability to educational achievement“.

• Mackintosh (2002) notes “Schoolchildren’s IQ scores correlate in the range 0.5 to 0.7 with their current and subsequent educational attainment: the correlation between 11-year-olds’ IQ scores and their GCSE grades at age 16 is over 0.5“.

Although this evidence of a positive relationship is significant, the level of disagreement among researchers is a potential drawback; the difference between 0.5 and 0.8 is actually very large – and these two studies are talking about the same general group of UK pupils.

In general this approach makes a positive connection between social selection on the basis of educational qualifications and intelligence. In America, for example, Murray and Herrnstein (1994) argue race is inextricably linked to different levels of intelligence (a continuum that roughly runs from black at the bottom, white in the middle to Asian at the top) and this explains why black Americans achieve less than their White or Asian peers.

In the UK, Saunders (2002) argues intelligence, while not determined at birth, differs between social classes; social and developmental factors mean middle-class children are, on average, significantly more intelligent than their working-class peers. Social selection based on class differences in intelligence operates in two ways:

Firstly, middle class parents in professional employment have demonstrated their higher levels of intelligence. They have achieved high employment status through competing against their working class peers and coming out on top.

Secondly, the knowledge and experience parents gain through this social process gives their children a distinct competitive advantage, partly because the latter have more to lose by educational failure (downward social mobility) and partly because middle class parents instil in their children the importance of educational qualifications, since this is how they achieved their current social status.

Saunders argues, therefore, that social selection, like its natural counterpart, ensures the most academically able rise to the top of the class structure. Intelligent working class children are educationally successful and rise into the middle class while middle class children who fail to capitalise on their social advantages fall back into the working class. Social selection ensures, therefore, that middle class children will, on average, always be more intelligent than working class children.


Explanations here generally follow two lines of reasoning:

Firstly, it would be very surprising if there was not a positive correlation between IQ test scores and educational achievement, mainly because the skills valued and taught in schools and tested in public examinations are those measured in IQ tests. The relationship, from this perspective, is a statistical artefact resulting from how something is measured; those who, at 11, are good at verbal reasoning or solving mathematical problems are highly likely to be similarly proficient at age 16.

One way to test the validity of this argument is to look at achievement at the highest levels of the education system, where the skills required for success are substantially different; Petty (2011), for example, argues IQ tests such as the American SAT, the British 11+ and the Australian HSC “are very bad at predicting performance in university“.

Secondly, educational achievement is not related to intelligence, per se; rather, it is related to a range of cultural factors inside and outside the education system that allow some pupils to achieve, while severely limiting the ability of others to do the same. This achievement is simply validated by higher measured levels of IQ. In other words, cultural factors relating to class, gender and ethnicity underpin and explain both higher IQ and achievement levels. As Goleman (1995) argues “The vast majority of one’s ultimate niche in society is determined by non-IQ factors, ranging from social class to luck“. From this perspective, therefore, the crucial explanatory relationship is between cultural learning and both measured achievement and intelligence.

Petty argues that a defining feature of IQ tests is that they “reflect the social order” because “the people who make up the IQ tests are from the educated middle class. What they are saying to others who score high on IQ tests is “You must be intelligent, you think just like me”. The values that are reflected in IQ tests are those of the middle class“.

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