What Is High-Stakes Testing?

High-stakes testing is a practice in which the outcome on a standardized test is used as a determining factor in decisions concerning students. Examples of consequences for students include being held back in a grade or not being allowed to graduate until the test is passed. High-stakes testing has a long history and it is still widely used in the United States today.

Examples of High-Stakes Testing

According to The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann, James Bryant Conant initially developed the Standardized Achievement Test (SAT) to help eliminate the predominance of individuals who were rewarded because of their personal connections or their wealth. It's still thought that the SAT provides a merit-based method for comparison among students.

The American College Testing (ACT) assessment was created in 1959 to compete with the SAT. Today, many students take both tests, and each college has its own preference for which score(s) to use for admission purposes.

However, some people have questioned whether these standardized tests have achieved their goals. Results have created a huge conflict over race and test bias. The reasons for this are varied and beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say, however, that this issue has implications on the future of standardized testing and on your job as an educator.

Approximately 80 percent of U.S. government jobs today are filled using work experience, background, and education as qualifications. Only the remaining 20 percent require applicants to pass a written test. Examples of these jobs include air traffic controllers and law enforcement personnel.

Determining college acceptance criteria is not the only use of high-stakes exams. Many states also use high-stakes testing for determination of course mastery and decisions concerning promotion and graduation. The following is just a short sample list of state tests at this time:

  • California: Students must pass the California High School Exit Examination in order to graduate.

  • Florida: Students from grades three to ten take various forms of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and results have consequences for the school and for graduation eligibility.

  • New York: Students take Regents Exams, some of which must be passed for graduation and some of which make a student eligible for an Advanced Regents Diploma.

  • Texas: Students from grades four to eleven take various forms of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills; students must pass the eleventh grade test to graduate.

As this sampling shows, failing high-stakes state tests can have a huge impact on students. All 50 states have standardized tests of one sort or another that they use to judge their educational system.

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