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.
- is a single, defined assessment,
- has a clear line drawn between those who pass and those who fail, and
- has direct consequences for passing or failing (something "at stake").
- Driver's license tests and the legal ability to drive
- Theater auditions and the part in the performance
- College entrance examinations in some countries, such as Japan's Common first-stage exam, and admission to a high-quality university
- Many job interviews or drug tests and being hired
- High school exit examinations and high-school diplomas
No Child Left Behind tests and school funding and ratings
- Ph.D. oral exams and receiving the doctorate
- Professional licensing and certification examinations (such as the bar exams, FAA written tests, and medical exams) and the license or certification being sought
- The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and recognition as a speaker of English (if a minimum score is required, but not if it is used merely for information [normally in work and school placement contexts])
The test does not correctly measure the individual's knowledge or skills. For example, a test might purport to be a general reading-skills test, but it might actually determine whether or not the examinee has read a specific book.
The test may not measure what the critic wants measured. For example, a test might accurately measure whether a law student has acquired fundamental knowledge of the legal system, but the critic might want students to be tested on legal ethics instead of legal knowledge.
High-stakes testing may encourage teachers to omit material that is not tested. "Teaching to the test" can result in a narrow curriculum and lower skills. For example, if a driving exam does not test parallel parking skills, then driving instructors may stop teaching that skill to a driving student, in favor of focusing instruction time on the material that will be tested, such as determining which vehicle has the right of way at a four-way stop. The result is that the student will be able to pass the test, but may be unable to park a car safely in some places. According to Campbell's law, the higher the stakes are (for the test taker or for the school), the more likely this is to happen.
Testing causes stress for some students. Critics suggest that since some people perform poorly under the pressure associated with tests, any test is likely to be less representative of their actual standard of achievement than a non-test alternative. This is called test anxiety or performance anxiety.
High-stakes tests are often given as a single long exam. Some critics prefer continuous assessment instead of one larger test. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) opposes using a one-time high school exit examination as the single determinant of whether a student should graduate, saying, "Any decision about a student's continued education, such as retention, tracking, or graduation, should not be based on the results of a single test, but should include other relevant and valid information." Since the stakes are related to consequences, not method, however, short tests can also be high-stakes.
High-stakes testing creates more incentive for cheating. Because cheating on a single critical exam may be easier than either learning the required material or earning credit through attendance, diligence, or many smaller tests, more examinees that do not actually have the necessary knowledge or skills, but who are effective cheaters, may pass. Also, some people who would otherwise pass the test but are not confident enough of themselves might decide to additionally secure the outcome by cheating, get caught and often face even worse consequences than just failing. Additionally, if the test results are used to determine the teachers' pay or continued employment, or to evaluate the school, then school personnel may fraudulently alter student test papers to artificially inflate student performance.
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. 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. This use of tests — to deny a high school diploma, and thereby access to most jobs and higher education for a lifetime — is controversial even when the test itself accurately identifies students that do not have the necessary skills. Criticism is usually framed as over-reliance on a single measurement or in terms of social justice, if the absence of skill is not entirely the test taker's fault, as in the case of a student who cannot read because of unqualified teachers, or an elderly person with advanced dementia that can no longer pass a driving exam due to loss of cognitive function.
Tests can penalize test takers that do not have the necessary skills through no fault of their own. An absence of skill may not be the test taker's fault, but high-stakes test measure only skill proficiency, regardless of whether the test takers had an equal opportunity to learn the material. Additionally, wealthy students may use private tutoring or test preparation programs to improve their scores. Some affluent parents pay thousands of dollars to prepare their children for tests. Critics see this as being unfair to students who cannot afford additional educational services.
High-stakes tests reveal that some examinees do not know the required material, or do not have the necessary skills. 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. The person may suffer social embarrassment when his acquaintances discover that his lack of skill resulted in loss of his driver's license. In the context of high school exit exams, poorly performing school districts have formally opposed high-stakes testing after low test results, which accurately and publicly exposed the districts' failures, proved to be politically embarrassing, and criticized high-stakes tests for identifying students who lack the required knowledge. As high-stakes testing moves into the 21st century, many exams are performed using online tools. This puts low income students at a disadvantage as less than 65% have computers in their household. Low-income school districts do not have the funding to provide students with the tools and training to perform the tasks required for the test. Tests may given mid-year to provide for the lack of technology services at the school
High-stakes testing starts too young for children. The tests often start as young as third grade, and sometimes even earlier. High-stakes testing make children responsible for knowing or not knowing information, in order to be promoted, and if they do not know the information they are punished by being retained or summer school.