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A high-stakes test is a test with important consequences for the test taker. 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.
In common usage, a high-stakes test is any test that has major consequences or is the basis of a major decision.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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