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Studying Intellectual Outliers

As indicated by the succinct title, this article addresses two topics that have generated much discussion around the water cooler and in both professional and lay publications. The answers, expressed succinctly, is that sex differences in performance on tests of mathematical aptitude have decreased greatly in recent years; and that, overall, intellectual performance (as measured  by standardized tests) has gone up in recent years, even among those with high aptitude.

Many readers will know of the brouhaha which occurred in 2005 when then Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers claimed that gender differences in science and math were probably due to some extent to inherited (genetic/biological/brain) differences between males and females. Contrary to the widespread belief, this statement by Summers was not the primary reason that he was removed from the presidency. We do not know the causes of any such differences, but the dramatic change over the years dictates extreme caution before one evokes biological (and, hence, very difficult to affect) differences.

As for the overall rise in scores, it is probably due to several factors. Perhaps the least interesting, and yet possibly the most important, is that test takers (and teachers) have become familiar with certain kinds of tests, and hence, these tests become easier for test takers.

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