High-stakes testing

A driving test is a high-stakes test: Without passing the test, the test taker cannot obtain a driver's license.

A high-stakes test is a test with important consequences for the test taker.[1] Passing has important benefits, such as a high school diploma, a scholarship, or a license to practice a profession. Failing has important disadvantages, such as being forced to take remedial classes until the test can be passed, not being allowed to drive a car, or not being able to find employment.

The use and misuse of high-stakes tests are a controversial topic in public education, especially in the United States and U.K. where they have become especially popular in recent years, used not only to assess students but in attempts to increase teacher accountability.[2]


In common usage, a high-stakes test[3] is any test that has major consequences or is the basis of a major decision.[1][4][5]

Under a more precise definition, a high-stakes test is any test that:

High-stakes testing is not synonymous with high-pressure testing. An American high school student might feel pressure to perform well on the SAT-I college aptitude exam. However, SAT scores do not directly determine admission to any college or university, and there is no clear line drawn between those who pass and those who fail, so it is not formally considered a high-stakes test.[7][8] On the other hand, because the SAT-I scores are given significant weight in the admissions process at some schools, many people believe that it has consequences for doing well or poorly and is therefore a high-stakes test under the simpler, common definition.[9][10]

The stakes

High stakes are not a characteristic of the test itself, but rather of the consequences placed on the outcome. For example, no matter what test is used—written multiple choice, oral examination, performance test—a medical licensing test must be passed to practice medicine.

The perception of the stakes may vary. For example, college students who wish to skip an introductory-level course are often given exams to see whether they have already mastered the material and can be passed to the next level. Passing the exam can reduce tuition costs and time spent at university. A student who is anxious to have these benefits may consider the test to be a high-stakes exam. Another student, who places no importance on the outcome, so long as he is placed in a class that is appropriate to his skill level, may consider the same exam to be a low-stakes test.[6]

The phrase "high stakes" is derived directly from a gambling term. In gambling, a stake is the quantity of money or other goods that is risked on the outcome of some specific event. A high-stakes game is one in which, in the player's personal opinion, a large quantity of money is being risked. The term is meant to imply that implementing such a system introduces uncertainty and potential losses for test takers, who must pass the exam to "win," instead of being able to obtain the goal through other means.


Examples of high-stakes tests and their "stakes" include:


A high-stakes system may be intended to benefit people other than the test-taker. For professional certification and licensure examinations, the purpose of the test is to protect the general public from incompetent practitioners. The individual stakes of the medical student and the medical school are, hopefully, balanced against the social stakes of possibly allowing an incompetent doctor to practice medicine.[11]

A test may be "high-stakes" based on consequences for others beyond the individual test-taker.[5] For example, an individual medical student who fails a licensing exam will not be able to practice his or her profession. However, if enough students at the same school fail the exam, then the school's reputation and accreditation may be in jeopardy. Similarly, testing under the U.S.'s No Child Left Behind Act has no direct negative consequences for failing students,[12] but potentially serious consequences for their schools, including loss of accreditation, funding, teacher pay, teacher employment, or changes to the school's management.[13] The stakes are therefore high for the school, but low for the individual test-takers.

Assessments used in high-stakes testing

Any form of assessment can be used as a high-stakes test. Many times, an inexpensive multiple-choice test is chosen for convenience. A high-stakes assessment may also involve answering open-ended questions or a practical, hands-on section. For example, a typical high-stakes licensing exam for a medical nurse determines whether the nurse can insert an I.V. line by watching the nurse actually do this task. These assessments are called authentic assessments or performance tests.[6]

Some high-stakes tests may be standardized tests (in which all examinees take the same test under reasonably equal conditions), with the expectation that standardization affords all examinees a fair and equal opportunity to pass.[6] Some high-stakes tests are non-standardized, such as a theater audition.

As with other tests, high-stakes tests may be criterion-referenced or norm-referenced.[6] For example, a written driver's license examination typically is criterion-referenced, with an unlimited number of potential drivers able to pass if they correctly answer a certain percentage of questions. On the other hand, essay portions of some bar exams are often norm-referenced, with the worst essays failed and the best essays passed, without regard for the overall quality of the essays.

The "clear line" between passing and failing on an exam may be achieved through use of a cut score: for example, test takers correctly answering 75% or more of the questions pass the test; test takers correctly answering 74% or fewer fail, or don't "make the cut". In large-scale high-stakes testing, rigorous and expensive standard setting studies may be employed to determine the ideal cut score or to keep the test results consistent between groups taking the test at different times.


High-stakes tests, despite their extensive usage for determination of academic and non-academic proficiency, are subject to criticism for various reasons. Example concerns include the following:


  1. 1 2 "Lexicon of Learning". Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  2. Rosemary Sutton & Kelvin Seifert (2009) Educational Psychology, 2nd Edition: “Chapter 1: The Changing Teaching Profession and You.” pp 14
  3. National Council on Measurement in Education http://www.ncme.org/ncme/NCME/Resource_Center/Glossary/NCME/Resource_Center/Glossary1.aspx?hkey=4bb87415-44dc-4088-9ed9-e8515326a061#anchorH
  4. "High-Stakes Testing: Educational Barometer for Success,or False Prognosticator for Failure".
  5. 1 2 Torin D. Togut. "EDEX 790 Glossary of Education Terms". Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 "The nature of assessment: A guide to standardized testing — Center for Public Education". Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  7. Pfeiffer, Steven I (Winter 2009). "The Debate about Using the SAT in College Admissions". Duke University Talent Identification Program. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which publishes the SAT, counters that the SAT I is “not a high-stakes test” but is a useful admissions tool when considered along with other evidence of a student’s potential for college success.
  8. "Phelps' critique of Cannell paper: Misunderstandings". Independent Education Review. ISSN 1557-2870. The ACT and SAT are not the highest stakes tests. Indeed, they may more accurately be categorized as medium stakes tests. One can do poorly on either test, and one will still get into college somewhere. By contrast, a couple dozen states, and most other countries, require passage of a test in order to graduate. That's high stakes.
  9. Mari Pearlman (April 4, 2001). "High-stakes Testing: Perils & Opportunities". Archived from the original on 2009-09-25. Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  10. Eddy Ramírez (30 April 2008). "Admissions Officials Shrug at SAT Writing Test". Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  11. Mehrens, W.A. (1995). Legal and Professional Bases for Licensure Testing.' In Impara, J.C. (Ed.) Licensure testing: Purposes, procedures, and practices, pp. 33-58. Lincoln, NE: Buros Institute.
  12. "NCLB has nothing to do with the high-stakes nature of the test for students".
  13. Greene, Jay P., Marcus A. Winters, Greg Forster (February 2003). "Testing High Stakes Tests: Can We Believe the Results of Accountability Tests?". Civic Report. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
  14. Zuriff GE (1997). "Accommodations for test anxiety under ADA?". J. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law. 25 (2): 197–206. PMID 9213292.
  15. "Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation's Schools". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 2008-01-09.
  16. 1 2 Jacob, Brian A. and Steven D. Levitt (Winter 2004). "To Catch a Cheat" (PDF). Education Next.
  17. "Figure 1-10: Employee/faculty support for high stakes testing: 2000". Retrieved 2008-02-06.
  18. Lewis, Anne (April 2000). "High-stakes testing: Trends and issues" (PDF). Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.
  19. 1 2 Togut, Torin D. "High-Stakes Testing: Educational Barometer for Success, or False Prognosticator for Failure".
  20. Myers, David (2001). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers. p. 464. ISBN 1-57259-791-7. Why blame the tests for exposing unequal experiences and opportunities?
  21. Dang, Nick (18 March 2003). "Reform education, not exit exams". Daily Bruin. One common complaint from failed test-takers is that they weren’t taught the tested material in school. Here, inadequate schooling, not the test, is at fault. Blaming the test for one’s failure is like blaming the service station for a failed smog check; it ignores the underlying problems within the 'schooling vehicle.'
  22. "Tackling the SAT? Test-prep help abounds". Christian Science Monitor. 90 (175). Associated Press. August 4, 1998. pp. B3. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2007-07-09. Some parents spend thousands of dollars for private sessions...
  23. Johnson, Dale, Bonnie Johnson, Stephen J. Farenga, & Daniel Ness. (2008). Stop High-Stakes Testing: An Appeal to America's Conscience. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  24. Weinkopf, Chris (2002). "Blame the test: LAUSD denies responsibility for low scores". Daily News. The blame belongs to 'high-stakes tests' like the Stanford 9 and California's High School Exit Exam. Reliance on such tests, the board grumbles, 'unfairly penalizes students that have not been provided with the academic tools to perform to their highest potential on these tests'.
  25. "Blaming The Test". Investor's Business Daily. 11 May 2006. A judge in California is set to strike down that state's high school exit exam. Why? Because it's working. It's telling students they need to learn more. We call that useful information. To the plaintiffs who are suing to stop the use of the test as a graduation requirement, it's something else: Evidence of unequal treatment....the exit exam was deemed unfair because too many students who failed the test had too few credentialed teachers. Well, maybe they did, but granting them a diploma when they lack the required knowledge only compounds the injustice by leaving them with a worthless piece of paper.
  26. http://www.census.gov/history/pdf/2013computeruse.pdf
  27. Kozol, Jonathan (2005). The Shame of the Nation. New York: Crown Publishers. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-4000-5245-5.

Further reading

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