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High-stakes testing

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Social Processes: Methodology · Types of test

A high-stakes test is a test which has important consequences for the test taker.[1] If the examinee passes the test, then the examinee may receive significant benefits, such as a high school diploma, a scholarship, or a license to practice law. If the examinee fails the test, then the examinee may receive significant disadvantages, such as being forced to take remedial classes until the test can be passed, or not being allowed to drive a car.

The key features of a high-stakes test are:

  • A single defined assessment
  • A clear line drawn between those who pass and those who fail
  • A direct consequence for passing or failing (something "at stake")[2]

High-stakes testing is not synonymous with high-pressure testing. For example, a U.S. student might feel much pressure to perform well on the SAT exam. However, SAT scores do not directly determine admission to any U.S. college or university, and there is no clear line drawn between those who pass and those who fail.

High-stakes testing can contribute to test anxiety.

The "Stakes"

High stakes are not purely a characteristic of the test itself, but rather the consequences placed on the outcome by an organization. For example, consider the examination to obtain a medical license. It does not matter what test is used - written multiple choice, oral examination, performance test - the test must be passed to practice medicine.

Not everyone will agree that a given test is a high-stakes examination. 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.[2]

A high-stakes test may have consequences for others beyond the individual test-taker.[3] 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 NCLB law has almost no negative consequences for failing students, but potentially serious consequences for their schools. The stakes are therefore high for the school, but low for the individual students.

A high-stakes system may 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 must be balanced against the social stakes of possibly allowing an incompetent doctor to practice medicine.[4]

The phrase "high stakes" is derived directly from a gambling term and 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 with greater certainty through apparent effort, good attendance records, favoritism, the reputation of the educational institution, or other means that are either less related to the individual's actual skill or that are more open to manipulation of the examiner.

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 performance tests.[5]

High-stakes tests are normally given as standardized tests (all examinees take the test under reasonably equal conditions) to afford all examinees a fair and equal opportunity to pass. Other times, high-stakes tests are non-standardized. A theater audition is an example of a non-standardized, high-stakes exam.

High-stakes exams can be criterion-referenced tests or norm-referenced tests. 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 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.

Examples of high-stakes tests include:

  • Driver's license tests
  • Theater auditions
  • Movie screen tests
  • College entrance exams in some countries, such as Japan's Common first-stage exam.
  • Many job interviews
  • High school exit examinations
  • PhD oral exams
  • Professional licensure and certification examinations
  • TOEFL, if a minimum score is required, but not if it is used merely for information
  • Most sporting competitions


High-stakes tests are often opposed for the following reasons:

  • The specific test in question does not actually measure the desirable knowledge or skills. For example, a test might purport to be a general reading-skills test, whereas it really determines whether or not the examinee has read a specific book.
  • Testing causes stress for some students. Some people perform poorly under the pressure associated with tests. Any test is less likely to be representative of their actual standard of achievement than a non-test alternative. The principles of high-stakes testing can be applied equally to non-test situations, such as a portfolio analysis.
  • High-stakes tests are often given as a single long exam. Some opponents prefer a continuous assessment model, so that students could take many smaller tests instead of one larger test.[6] The principles of high-stakes testing can be applied equally to frequent short tests, such as giving every student a short test at the end of each chapter in a textbook, and making individual students repeat that chapter's content until they pass the test.
  • Tests reveal that some examinees do not know the material. While failing these people may have many public benefits, the consequences of repeated failure can be very high for the individual. For example, a person who fails a practical driving exam will not be able to drive a car legally, which means they cannot drive to work and may lose their job if alternative transportation options are not available.
  • Sometimes a high-stakes test is tied to a controversial reward. For example, some people may want a high-school diploma to represent the verified acquisition of specific skills or knowledge, and therefore use a high-stakes assessment to deny a diploma to anyone who cannot perform the necessary skills.[7] Others may want a high school diploma to represent primarily a certificate of attendance, so that a student who faithfully attended school but cannot read or write will still get the social benefits of graduation.[8]


  1. Lexicon of Learning.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The nature of assessment: A guide to standardized testing - Center for Public Education. URL accessed on 2008-01-19.
  3. EDEX 790 Glossary of Education Terms.
  4. 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.
  5. The nature of assessment: A guide to standardized testing - Center for Public Education. URL accessed on 2008-01-19.
  6. Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation's Schools. American Psychological Association. URL accessed on 2008-01-09.
  7. Figure 1-10: Employee/faculty support for high stakes testing: 2000. URL accessed on 2008-02-06.
  8. Opinion: High-stakes testing. URL accessed on 2008-02-06.

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