Intelligence Testing and Cultural Diversity: Concerns, Cautions, and Considerations

Donna Y. Ford

At all levels of education, there is great concern about the low performance of racially and linguistically diverse students—African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans—on standardized tests, as well as their under-representation in gifted education. While fewer concerns and criticisms target achievement tests, a wealth of controversy surrounds intelligence tests (also known as cognitive ability tests), specifically given the consistently lower performance of Black students on intelligence tests compared to White students. More so than with achievement tests, intelligence tests also carry the burden of being associated with innate ability, particularly by laypersons and those unfamiliar with the purposes and limitation of test; this, to those unfamiliar with the purposes and limitations of tests, when one group performs lower than another group, the results, they believe, may be attributed to heredity or genetic inferiority. This simplistic explanation ignores the role of environment, including education and opportunity to learn, on students’ test performance.

For the most part, low achievement test scores are associated with poor educational experiences, lack or motivation, and a host of other factors that tend to be environmental or social rather than inherited or genetic. Conversely, some people presume that intelligence tests measure unlearned abilities—abilities less dependent on instruction and education—and they interpret low performance on intelligence tests with low cognitive ability and potential.

Attempts to develop an accurate definition of “intelligence” have been fraught with difficulty and controversy. Nowhere are these debates and controversies more prevalent than in gifted education and special education. These two educational fields rely extensively on tests to make educational and placement decisions.

There is little consensus about the reasons diverse students score lower on standardized tests of intelligence than do White students. Further, there is little consensus regarding the definition of test bias, the existence of test bias, the types of test biases, the impact of test bias on diverse students, and the nature and extent of test bias in contemporary or newly re-normed tests.

This monograph examines test bias by reviewing seminal publications and research, discusses intelligence tests with specific attention to interpretations of and explanations for the comparatively low performance of racially and culturally diverse students, explores definitions of and strategies for determining the nature and extent of test bias, and draws implications for the field of gifted education.


Ford, D. Y. (2004). Intelligence testing and cultural diversity: Concerns, cautions, and considerations (RM04204). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Intelligence Testing and Cultural Diversity: Concerns, Cautions, and Considerations
Donna Y. Ford


  1. Culturally and linguistically diverse students are consistently under-represented in gifted programs and under-representation exists primarily because of diverse students’ performance on traditional intelligence tests.
  2. Regardless of whether one is using traditional intelligence tests or tests considered to be less culturally-loaded, testing, assessment, test interpretation, and test use must be guided by sound, defensible, and equitable principles and practices.
  3. Given the array of unresolved assessment issues regarding the identification of talent potential among minority students, the probability is raised that the questions being asked need reframing.
  4. Non-verbal tests may provide the only available window into an examinee’s verbal reasoning in his or her native language.