The Bell Curve and Standardized Tests

I have long been a proponent of finding alternatives to standardized tests, including the use of portfolio assessment and other authentic assessments that measure real learning and not the ability to choose the correct answer. Along this line, I had a conversation a few days ago with another educator about the concept of the bell curve and how intelligence, as it is viewed, can be a more accurate determiner of achieving proficiency.

While I do not believe that the current view of proficiency being propelled by many educational “leaders” is an accurate view of what learning has actually occurred, I thought I would delve a little deeper into this other educator’s viewpoint that if the bell curve is a sound theory, and if students are spread along that curve, how will all students achieve the numerical score that indicates they are proficient? In 1968, sociologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen decided to test the theory that perceived intelligence is in actuality a self-fulfilling prophecy. To put it concisely, Rosenthal and Jacobsen convinced several teachers to give a test they called “The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.” Rosenthal and Jacobsen randomly picked students who had been given this test, but told their teachers they had been identified as students who were expected to do very well academically. Test scores from the teachers, behavioral observations, and even a second administration of the test showed that these randomly chosen students did much better than the rest of the class. The reality was, however, that these students were more academically gifted only in the mind of the teachers, and the results were revealing.

This study may not have abolished the idea of intelligence as based upon a “standardized test” but it does go a long way to invoke questions about how reliable a measure any standardized test may be.

As for the bell curve, there is still ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of that particular statistical concept, mainly due to a noticeable rise in IQ over time, making the initial view that the mean IQ score should fall somewhere around 100 (the Flynn effect).

According to J. Atherton, there may be other, more compelling factors that influence educational growth, including motivation, opportunity, background, and teaching.

This debate I had may not be solved in so short a piece as this, and it may raise more questions. What is the next step? Perhaps, these questions need further study. In any event, however, these questions do tend, at least in my professional opinion, to shed doubt upon the real benefits of standardized testing.


Atherton J S (2011) Learning and Teaching; Intelligence [On-line] retrieved 1 April 2011 from Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston