Are kids today smarter than kids 30 or 40 years ago? (In other words, their parents?)

The kids would say so, but then, every generation thinks it’s smarter (not to mention way cooler) than its parents.

However, today’s kids just might have a leg to stand on: there’s been a steady increase in scores on IQ tests over the last century. In fact, people who scored in the top 10 percent in the early 1900s would score in the bottom five percent today.

Of course, how significant this is depends on how accurately IQ tests measure intelligence.

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species provided the impetus for intelligence tests by suggesting that human capabilities could be measured just like other animals’. In fact, it was Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who first attempted to measure intelligence. From 1884 to 1890, he maintained a laboratory at the South Kensington Museum in London, where (for a small fee) visitors could have themselves measured in a variety of tasks with both mental and physical components–deciding which of two weights was heavier, for instance.

Unfortunately, data collected years later showed that these kinds of tasks don’t even predict who will do well on similar types of tasks, much less who’ll do well at university.

The modern IQ test originated in France in 1904, when the minister of public instruction named a commission to insure that mentally challenged children were properly identified and educated. Psychologist Alfred Binet and collaborator Theodore Simon created a test that measured judgment, comprehension and reasoning. Stanford University psychologis Lewis Terman took the test to the U.S. and refined it. It became known as the Stanford-Binet test, and, though heavily revised, is still in use.

Terman expressed intelligence as the ratio between a child’s mental age and physical age. Thus, a 10-year-old who performed as well as the average 12-year-old on the Stanford-Binet test had an “intelligence quotient” of 120.

During World War I the U.S. government gave IQ tests to 1.7 million inductees. The military still uses IQ tests to decide what to do with new recruits. U.S. businesses used to use them, too, but the Supreme Court banned the practice in the 1970s.

Still, almost everyone takes an IQ test some time, though the notion of an intelligence quotient based on “mental age” has fallen out of favor. IQs today are computed on a bell curve. Tests are regularly “renormed” so that half the scores fall above 100 and half below 100, and about two-thirds of people fall between 85 and 115.

The tests have to be regularly renormed because people keep scoring higher on them. By studying the scores on tests such as the military’s, which haven’t changed for years, and by having people take both the current version of an IQ test and an upcoming replacement, researchers discovered that scores on the Stanford-Binet test have been increasing about three points per decade–six points per decade if sections reflecting knowledge acquired over time are removed and only sections measuring abstract reasoning skills are included. Another test, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which uses shapes rather than words to measure reasoning ability, also shows an increase of six points per decade.

Does this mean people today are smarter? That depends on who you ask–and what they think of IQ tests.

Critics contend the tests don’t take race and class differences enough into account. Others contend that common sense and an ability to function perceptively and creatively in the real world are just as important measures of intelligence as IQ and are qualities sometimes easier to find in people with average IQs than in people who are supposedly gifted.

Nevertheless, there must be some reason for the rising IQ scores. Suggested causes include better education, socioeconomic conditions and nutrition, smaller families and urbanization.

Some even believe television and video games have contributed to the increase, by boosting vocabulary, exposing children to a wider range of ideas, and enhancing the ability to recognize and mentally manipulate patterns.

Others say the results only show that students have become better at taking IQ tests. They point out that achievement tests like the U.S.’s SATs don’t show a similar increase.

The debate will continue. In the meantime, kids, do me a favor: don’t go running to your parents and telling them you’re smarter than they are, and you know it’s true because you read it in my column.

As I was told more than once as a kid, “smart” and “smart-aleck” are two entirely different things.

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