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Culture-Fair Test

An intelligence test in which performance is not based on experience with or knowledge of a specific culture.

Culture-fair tests, also called culture-free tests, are designed to assess intelligence (or other attributes) without relying on knowledge specific to any individual cultural group. The first culture-fair test, called Army Examination Beta, was developed by the United States military during World War II to screen soldiers of average intelligence who were illiterate or for whom English was a second language. Beginning in the postwar period, culture-fair tests, which rely largely on nonverbal questions, have been used in public schools with Hispanic students and other non-native-English speakers whose lack of familiarity with both English language and American culture have made it impossible to assess their intelligence level using standard IQ tests. Culture-fair tests currently administered include the Learning Potential Assessment Device (DPAD), the Culture-Free Self-Esteem Inventories, and the Cattell Culture Fair Series consisting of scales one to three for ages four and up. The Cattell scales are intended to assess intelligence independent of cultural experience, verbal ability, or educational level. They are used for special education placement and college and vocational counseling. The tests consist mostly of paper-and-pencil questions involving the relationships between figures and shapes. Parts of scale one, used with the youngest age group, utilize various objects instead of paper and pencil. Activities in scales two and three, for children age eight and up, include completing series, classifying, and filling in incomplete designs.

Culture-fair testing is a timely issue given current debate over bias in intelligence and educational testing as it affects students who can speak and write English, but who are unfamiliar with white middle-class culture. Bias in intelligence testing has a historical precedent in early tests designed to exclude immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe from admission to the United States on grounds of mental inferiority. Critics of current tests claim that they discriminate against ethnic minorities in similar ways by calling for various types of knowledge unavailable to those outside the middle-class cultural mainstream. To dramatize the discriminatory nature of most intelligence testing, Professor Robert L. Williams devised the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity that requires a command of vocabulary items widely known among African Americans but not familiar to most whites (such as "do rag" and "four corners") and a knowledge of black history and culture ("Who wrote the Negro National Anthem?"). Williams claimed that the difficulties faced by white persons attempting to take this test are comparable to those that confront many blacks taking standardized IQ tests.

Critics of standardized tests claim that minority test takers are also penalized in ways other than their unfamiliarity with specific facts. A pervasive negative attitude toward such tests may give children from minority groups less motivation than whites to perform well on them, further reduced by low levels of trust in and identification with the person administering the test. In addition, students from a minority culture may be more likely to interpret and answer a question in ways that differ from the prescribed answer. (In the field of educational psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as divergent thinking and also tends to penalize gifted children.) Studies have shown that culture-fair tests do reduce differences in performance between whites and members of minority groups. However, they lag behind the standard tests in predicting success in school, suggesting that in their quest for academic success, members of minority groups must overcome cultural barriers that extend beyond those encountered in IQ tests.

Further Reading

Fraser, Steven. The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Mensh, Elaine, and Harry Mensh. The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Seligman, Daniel. A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Tests & Methods