What Is High-Stakes Testing?

Your Child's Test Scores Have Real-World Implications

Schoolboy struggling in educational exam
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High-stakes tests or high-stakes assessments have become part of the education vernacular since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. These assessments have important decisions or consequences riding on the result. In education, these decisions often relate to federal and local funding, placement and graduation decisions or ongoing tenure for teachers. It's somewhat telling that "low-stakes testing" is how we refer to assessments used to actually determine the academic progress of the student.

But the "high stakes" in high-stakes testing are real, as the consequences for individuals and institutions may be serious. Some outcomes of high-stakes testing are:

  • Punishments: These may be sanctions, penalties, funding reductions and general negative publicity.
  • Accolades: Schools and teachers may win awards, there may be public celebration and general positive publicity.
  • Advancement: Some high-stakes tests determine grade promotion or graduation for students.
  • Compensation: Teachers and administrators may receive salary increases or bonuses.

Why Is High-Stakes Testing Used?

No Child Left Behind encouraged the use of high-stakes testing to motivate and incentivize educators to improve their schools, teachers, and ultimate their student achievement. By attaching rewards and punishments to test scores, legislators and education experts reasoned that school districts and administrators would make tough choices and put in the necessary effort to improve the educational outcomes for the students in their charge.


Education reform also employed high-stakes testing strategies to impact racial and socio-economic imbalances in public education. By putting a premium on performance and data, high-stakes testing promotes a benchmark that all schools must attain. This notional fairness was intended to make certain that schools and school districts that have been historically neglected are "lifted up" to the same standards.

High-stakes tests also entail a degree of public reporting. The scores of individual students are kept private, but the results of a school or school district are available to the public in an effort to promote transparency and to give parents and taxpayers a window on the performance of their schools in relation to others.

Opposition and Controversy

High-stakes testing is controversial. In the decade and a half following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, opponents of high-stakes testing have put forth numerous arguments against the practice.

  • Chiefly, high-stakes testing encourages educators to “teach to the test” and spend class time prepping students for assessments rather than actually instructing.
  • Many argue that testing has negative impacted the academic program in schools, since administrators and teachers may neglect or reduce instruction in subject areas such as art, music or social studies that are not tested.
  • Some have seen wider incidence of cheating among students and even administrators. 
  • The "high-stakes" have considerable casualties: increased failure rates, lower graduation rates, and higher dropout rates, particularly for low-income students, special education students, and those for whom English is a second language.

In 2015, the Obama administration passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, and stripped much of the high-stakes testing elements from federal education law, including the linkage of teacher performance to student test scores.

Related Resources:

Questions to Ask Your School About High-Stakes Tests

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