In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section High-stakes Testing

  • Introduction
  • Historical and Contemporary Perspectives of High-Stakes Testing
  • How Testing Shapes the Curriculum
  • The Impacts of Testing on Teachers and Teaching Practices
  • Preparing for the Tests and Cheating
  • Testing and Student Motivation
  • The Impact of High-Stakes Testing on Special Populations
  • Testing and Student Retention

Education High-stakes Testing
M. Gail Jones, Megan Ennes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0200


High-stakes testing in schools is based on the premise that student learning will increase if educators and students are held accountable for achievement. By definition, testing becomes high stakes when the outcomes are used to make decisions about promotion, admissions, graduation, and salaries. High-stakes testing is often associated with public reporting of testing results as a way to bring attention to the assessment results. For schools with high or improved performance on assessments, there are typically rewards (often monetary), and for schools that underperform, there are often penalties that can result in the replacement of administrators or teachers or retention of students at grade level. Research on high-stakes testing has found that test preparation can distort the results of the test and lead to invalid interpretations of learning gains. Policymakers have increased the use of high-stakes tests as a mechanism to rank and label schools, leading to public use of test scores as measures of desirable real estate and as indicators of school and instructional program quality. Proponents of high-stakes testing have maintained that the tests measure a consistent standard for all students regardless of their location, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Advocates of testing maintain that the tests clearly identify what is to be learned and that by reporting scores, teachers and students will be more motivated to do well. Research on the impact of high-stakes testing has shown there are significant consequences that coincide with the implementation of assessment programs with significant stakes. Some of the consequences are positive (concrete standards, remediation programs, and attention given to low-achieving students) but others are negative and include a narrowed curriculum, instruction that focuses narrowly on what is assessed, cheating, and practicing for the tests. Other consequences of high-stakes testing programs include changes in student and teacher morale, and policies that disproportionately negatively impact minority students.

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives of High-Stakes Testing

High-stakes assessment programs are on the rise around the world (Lingard, et al. 2013; Smith 2014). A number of researchers have described the history and evolution of testing programs (Au 2011; Berliner 2011; Hamilton, et al. 2012; Lingard, et al. 2013; Smith 2014). Smith 2014 identified a shift from individual assessment (testing for advancement) toward testing for group accountability in the current literature. This has shifted the emphasis and responsibility from the individual student to learn and placed the emphasis on group assessment results that are the responsibility of teachers and schools. High-stakes testing movements have resulted in some schools being identified as low performing and in need of improvement, as identified by Cosner and Jones 2016. Studies have produced conflicting results as to whether high-stakes testing is improving student achievement, as identified by Phelps 2012, or not improving student achievement, as seen in Lee and Reeves 2012. One of the findings is that education is increasingly being run as a business (Au 2011; Lingard, et al. 2013; Smith 2014). This is partly due to the rise of international comparative exams (Lingard, et al. 2013; Smith 2014). There are several theories being applied to high-stakes testing. Au 2011 applied New Taylorism, which found that school decision making is top down, with administrators making the decisions and teachers losing autonomy. This leads to curriculum narrowing and an increase in didactic teaching methods. Berliner 2011 applied Campbell’s Law, which shows that as a societal gauge becomes too important, both the people using it and the indicator become corrupted. This leads to schools and teachers working the system trying to improve testing scores by cheating, removing students, or other means. When examining the global nature of testing, two theories appeared. The first, argued by Lingard, et al. 2013, is Global Panopticism, which focused on the global governance of education. The second, described by Smith 2014, is World Culture Theory, which argued that the globalization of accountability in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom is a result of shared global values. World Culture Theory is a Western model that has been used to examine high-stakes testing and identifies factors such as academic intelligence, faith in science, decentralization, and neoliberalism as frames for understanding the testing movement.

  • Au, W. 2011. Teaching under the new Taylorism: High-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies 43.1: 25–45.

    DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2010.521261

    This article gave an overview of teaching and discussed how high-stakes testing causes teachers to revert to historic teaching practices. On page 26, Au calls this “New Taylorism.” Taylorism focused on control from the manager level to organize workflows to high efficiency. In this system, education is driven only by objectives: teachers have no autonomy and administers determine the most efficient methods for producing students.

  • Berliner, D. 2011. Rational responses to high stakes testing: The case of curriculum narrowing and the harm that follows. Cambridge Journal of Education 41.3: 287–302.

    DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2011.607151

    This article’s theoretical framework is Campbell’s Law: whenever a societal gauge becomes too important, both the people using it and the indicator become corrupted. This leads to schools and teachers attempting to improve testing scores by cheating, removing students, or other means. Additionally, there has been a narrowing of curriculum, a decrease in higher-order thinking, and an increase in instructional time for tested subjects; social studies and science have lost the most time.

  • Cosner, S., and M. F. Jones. 2016. Leading school-wide improvement in low-performing schools facing conditions of accountability: Key actions and considerations. Journal of Educational Administration 54.1: 41–57.

    DOI: 10.1108/JEA-08-2014-0098

    This literature review examined issues related to school improvement for low-performing schools. Recommendations included setting goals, developing a plan that is implemented and adjusted for achieving those goals, developing organizational teams to help with the planning and implementation of the goals, and helping their staff understand and commit to the goals. Administration must promote teacher learning and protect teachers from external demands so they can focus on teaching a coordinated curriculum.

  • Hamilton, L. S., B. M. Stecher, and K. Yuan. 2012. Standards-based accountability in the United States: Lessons learned and future directions. Education Inquiry 3.2: 149–170.

    DOI: 10.3402/edui.v3i2.22025

    This article began with the history of standards-based accountability and then discussed the current findings. These included that high-stakes tests may increase teaching to the standards, as not all standards are covered in the tests. Teaching practice becomes distorted when there are strong repercussions associated with measurable outcomes. Responsibility may be moved in directions that conflict with the way schools are traditionally run. Being in alignment may reduce teacher autonomy. The authors gave suggestions for improving the system.

  • Lee, J., and T. Reeves. 2012. Revisiting the impact of NCLB high-stakes school accountability, capacity, and resources: State NAEP 1990–2009 reading and math achievement gaps and trends. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 34.2: 209–231.

    DOI: 10.3102/0162373711431604

    This study used hierarchical linear modeling to examine gains in scores as a result of No Child Left Behind. It found mixed patterns related to improving math and reading scores in the United States. The rate of improvement for reading was the same before and after implementation of NCLB, but math scores improved more quickly after the implementation of NCLB. However, the differences for both were small.

  • Lingard, B., W. Martino, and G. Rezai-Rashti. 2013. Testing regimes, accountabilities and education policy: Commensurate global and national developments. Journal of Education Policy 28.5: 539–556.

    DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2013.820042

    This article gave an introductory overview of the rise of testing around the world. The authors believe that the rise of global testing (ex: PISA, TIMSS) has led to global governance of national education, Global Panopticism. It has globalized educational comparisons and used it as a mode of governing schools. This process has changed not only the way education is organized but also the notion of what it means to be educated or to learn.

  • Phelps, R. P. 2012. The effect of testing on student achievement, 1910–2010. International Journal of Testing 12.1: 21–43.

    DOI: 10.1080/15305058.2011.602920

    This literature review examined student achievement and standardized testing. It found evidence that testing has increased student achievement. Based on the quantitative studies, the effects were moderately to strongly positive. For the qualitative studies, they were very strongly positive. The authors argue that the findings support testing that holds teachers and students accountable for their performance.

  • Smith, W. C. 2014. The global transformation toward testing for accountability. In Special issue: The comparative and international history of school accountability and testing. Edited by S. Dorn and C. Ydesen. Education Policy Analysis Archives 22.116: 1–34.

    It is important to differentiate between tests that have high stakes for students and those that have high stakes for teachers, as they have different effects on motivation. Changing who is held responsible has moved the focus from low-performing students to low-performing schools. The rise of accountability testing in the United States and the United Kingdom has pushed for globalization of accountability testing due to shared global values (World Culture Theory).

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