What is High-Stakes Testing?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

When the outcome of a standardized test is used as the sole determining factor for making a major decision, it is known as high-stakes testing. Common examples in the United States include standardized tests administered to measure school progress under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high school exit exams, and the use of test scores to determine whether or not a school will retain accreditation. These tests are supported by some, especially politicians, who believe that schools need more accountability. The practice is heavily criticized by many parents and educators, however, who believe that the outcome of a standardized test should be only one of many things taken into account when reaching a major decision about education.

High-stakes testing may include high school exit exams.
High-stakes testing may include high school exit exams.

High-stakes testing causes stress for students, parents, teachers, and school administrators, and has been reported in some cases to even lead to psychological distress so severe that it requires hospitalization or other treatment. The idea that performance on a single exam could change the course of someone's life is distasteful to some people, especially those who disapprove of standardized tests in general. Many professional organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have spoken out against this type of testing because they believe that major decisions require seeking out a balance of information, including in-class performance, interviews, observation, projects, and classwork.

High stakes testing may be used to determine whether a school retains accreditation.
High stakes testing may be used to determine whether a school retains accreditation.

When testing is used to evaluate instructors, results from students are measured with those from other parts of the state or country. This practice is especially common under NCLB, which demands base test scores from every school in the US, forcing many talented teachers to “teach to the test” in order for their schools to avoid sanctions. Most professional organizations of teachers would like to see teachers evaluated along a rubric that also includes classroom visits by inspectors, interviews, reviews of the course material the teacher uses, and other important examinations of the quality of education being offered by that teacher.

High stakes testing may be used to evaluate the performance of teachers.
High stakes testing may be used to evaluate the performance of teachers.

Students who participate in high-stakes testing and don't do well may find themselves unable to graduate from high school or to attend a program that they are interested in. For this reason, many parents speak out against the practice, arguing that it is not fair to their children. Many criticisms have been made of standardized tests and the way that they are administered, but perhaps the most important critical claim is that standardized tests do not measure critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and other similar important aspects of intelligence. Students who are perfectly intelligent can perform poorly on standardized tests, and this can have serious consequences for the student as well as his or her school.

A typical answer sheet for a multiple choice standardized test.
A typical answer sheet for a multiple choice standardized test.
Standardized tests are an example of high-stakes testing.
Standardized tests are an example of high-stakes testing.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have one major problem with high stakes testing in evaluating teachers: what do you do with those scores when you know that the students 'flew' through the test just because they did not want to take the test?

In watching students take the TCAP as an observer in a classroom this year, I watched about seven students in a class of 18 finish the reading sections in less than 15 minutes. These were 76 minute tests. You cannot expect good scores and the teacher could not ask the students to slow down, read the passages, or say anything else.

These students could, in turn, cost this great teacher her job. There are several every year who take the test in less than 15 minutes because they don't want to read. Something else needs to be done.

Teachers should not be relieved of their duties because of the inadequate behavior of students in relation to the tests they take. There must be some consequences for these students for not scoring well if you want them to do well. They must be held accountable for the learning, not just the teachers. The teachers are giving everything they have and many just do not care or see this in the classroom. --monitor/classroom mom


Yes, it can be agreed that there are good things that can come out of standardized testing, but to create a high-stakes environment is unnecessary.

The NCLB act just creates incentives for schools and teachers when the do well in scores. This leads to coaching or teaching for testing and children are then only taught what will be on the test. Yes, they will score really well in math, reading, and comprehension, but it will not reflect their knowledge. These tests are mainly multiple choice answer test. This results in memorization of facts not retention of knowledge.

Creating a standardized test is a laughable idea to me anyway. Please show me a standard student or a standard class or even a standard school. We pride ourselves on being diverse and different from other nations, but then we try and combine every school and every child under the same testing blanket. How is this fair?


crispety, you said, "Now the schools will be held accountable for the scores..." Umm, don't you think that a school that performed poorly should actually get more funding rather than lose it? obviously, these are the schools that need improvement and help the most, so why would you take away what they're already getting?

I think that testing is only a snapshot of the whole story. It is a good tool to use but not the only tool that should be used, because not all students do well in test-taking but that doesn't mean they don't know the material. -Ang


Sneakers41-I agree with you. For example, in the area of mathematics the highest scoring countries are those Asian countries that make math a priority.

For example, Japan consistently scores in the top three worldwide and they go to school the entire year with a few weeks off throughout the year.

There is no summer vacation and they usually only have one day off per week. Children in Japan go to school Monday through Saturday and usually do extra homework daily.

Kumon is a Japanese supplemental program that offers daily practice in math and reading.

Asian countries focus on mastery of a subject while many American programs use a spiral approach and touch on various subjects but with no real depth.

Maybe we also have to change our teaching methods to those of the more successful countries.


Crispety- Opponents of high stakes testing say that it does not measure the child’s full range of educational competencies.

I say that while that is true, all United States schools have to have a uniform measure in which to judge a student’s education.

These tests help the parent’s know if their child is actually learning. While not all children respond to a test taking environment the same, there should be some measure as to how the child performed across the board.

The United States is rank 25th among industrialized nations in the field of education. We should be ranked in the top five and the only way to improve our academic standings in the world is to do more testing to find out how we can improve.


SurfNturf-I also agree that high stakes testing for tracking promotion and graduation is necessary. All too often, we have children that graduate from high school unable to read or do basic math.

Many times these kids were promoted via social promotion policies that promoted them based on age and not competencies.

This results in a lost education because at some point, these kids stopped learning. The high stakes testing pros and cons really favor the pros for this reason.

Now the schools will be held accountable for the scores. Schools that perform poorly in these tests lose funding as they should.


I think that high stakes testing pros allow you to see a snapshot of what your child has learned in school.

Most of these tests involve reading comprehension, vocabulary, and mathematical computation. They usually offer a percentile rating along with the corresponding grade equivalent of the performance.

For example, if the child is in 8th grade and scores a 12.4 along with the 99% percentile, this means that the child scored the equivalent to a twelve grader in the fourth month and the 99% percentile means that they scored better than 99% of all of the kids that took the test.

This type of score might indicate that the child should be placed in a gifted or accelerated course for this particular subject.

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