Kenneth Chang, New York Times, April 7, 2014
The claim about babies was startling: A test administered to infants as young as 6 months could predict their score on an intelligence test years later, when they started school.
“Why not test infants and find out which of them could take more in terms of stimulation?” Joseph F. Fagan III, the psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who developed the test, was quoted as saying in an article by Gina Kolata on April 4, 1989. “It’s not going to hurt anybody, that’s for sure.”
In the test, the infant looks at a series of photographs–first a pair of identical faces, then the same face paired with one the baby hasn’t seen. The researchers measure how long the baby looks at the new face.
“On the surface, it tests novelty preference,” said Douglas K. Detterman, a colleague of Dr. Fagan’s at Case Western.
For reasons not quite understood, babies of below-average intelligence do not exhibit the same attraction to novelty.
Dr. Fagan suggested that the test could be used to identify children with above-average intelligence in poorer families so they could be exposed to enrichment programs more readily available to wealthier families.
25 years later
For the most part, the validity of the Fagan test holds up. Indeed, Dr. Fagan (who died last August) and Dr. Holland revisited infants they had tested in the 1980s, and found that the Fagan scores were predictive of the I.Q. and academic achievement two decades later when these babies turned 21.
“It’s really good science,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”
But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass. “There are some centers that have it,” Dr. Holland said. “It never came to be the kind of thing where it’s widely available.”
The trend is perhaps in the other direction, away from dividing young children by I.Q. and its surrogates out of concerns that the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Private schools in New York City, for example, have agreed to abandon intelligence tests for 4- and 5-year-old applicants.
Dr. Kaufman said that because the Fagan test was only “moderately predictive” of later academic success, it was not accurate enough to forecast the intellectual trajectory of a particular child. “From a practical standpoint, it’s not valid,” he said. “It’s not random, but it’s not enough for individual prediction.”
But the numbers become more reliable in aggregate, and the test is widely used in the academic world to quantify the effects of, for example, toxic chemicals on young children.
For the last decade of his life, Dr. Fagan was unexpectedly drawn into the “genes versus environment” debate over intelligence after he found that babies from widely different cultural backgrounds performed equally well on his test. That, he argued, undercut the argument for a biological basis for the stark “achievement gap” between white and black children, or rich and poor.