Why Ability Assessments Don't Cross Cultures

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You Can't Take It With You
Why Ability Assessments Don't Cross Cultures
Patricia M. Greenfield University of California, Los Angeles

A central thesis of this article is that ability tests can be analyzed as items of symbolic culture. This theoretical perspective, based in cultural psychology, provides psychological researchers and clinicians with the tools to detect, correct, and avoid the cross-cultural misunderstandings that undermine the validity of ability tests applied outside their culture of origin. When testers use tests developed in their own culture to test members of a different culture, testees often do not share the presuppositions about values, knowledge, and communication implicitly assumed by the test. These cross-cultural issues have important relevance for ability testing in an ethnically diverse society.


e thesis of this article is that tests of intelligence d cognitive ability are cultural genres (Cole, 85; Greenfield, in press; Lave, 1986). This thesis is identified with a theoretical perspective that has come to be known as cultural psychology (Bruner, 1990; Cole, 1990; Price-Williams, 1980; Shweder, 1990; Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt, 1990). I develop this thesis by showing how ability tests presuppose a particular cultural framework. Most important, I demonstrate that this framework is not universally shared. Therefore, when it comes to tests of ability and intelligence, it is often the case that " y o u can't take it with you." There is, however, an alternative point of view, briefly summarized as " y o u can take it with you." This view, generally identified with a perspective called crosscultural psychology (Berry, Poortinga, Segall, & Dasen, 1992; van de Vijver & Leung, 1997), is that ability tests are intrinsically transportable from one culture to another. With appropriate linguistic translation, administration by a "native" tester, and (less frequently) the provision of familiar content, the notion is that ability tests can go anywhere. Researchers and testers working in this tradition are interested in discovering both universals and cross-cultural variability in the whole range of human attributes, ability included. They see the advantage of administering tests that have known psychometric properties and provide a universal metric for comparative purposes (Poortinga, 1989). This point of view is strongly rooted in the traditions of North American psychology (Lonner & Adamapolous, 1997), with its strong preference for quantification and universalism. In addition to the theoretical interests of cross-culOctober 1997 • American Psychologist Copyright 1997 by the American Psychological Association. Ine. 0003-066X/97/$2.00 VoL 52. No. 10, 1115-1124

tural psychologists, there are also utilitarian reasons to carry IQ and other ability measures to new cultures. Ability assessments can be used in clinical settings (e.g., to diagnose mental deficiency), in educational settings (e.g., to place children in an academic track), and in occupational settings (e.g., for job selection). In these cases, cross-cultural assessment often occurs when testers from a dominant cultural group test participants from a minority or less powerful group, using tests that originated in the dominant culture. In other words, one can cross cultures within a society, as well as between societies. This kind of cross-cultural testing, increasingly common with rising numbers of immigrants in the United States, also assumes that " y o u can take it with you." The practice of taking ability tests across cultures for utilitarian reasons depends on the same set of assumptions that are made in cross-cultural psychology. Cultural psychology provides a theoretical framework for questioning these assumptions. Central to cultural psychology is the human capacity for symbolic culture. The term culture implies sharing or agreement, that is, social convention. In symbolic culture what is shared are values, knowledge, and...
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