What is “high stakes” vs “low stakes” testing?

Janison|February 1, 2022

Debate persists around the use of the term ‘high-stakes assessment’, especially for large-scale and high-profile exams. We’re likely to come across this term in the media or in academic papers, especially during exam season, or whenever these channels seek to explore the merits of the use of such testing.

In this brief guide, we’ll clarify the meaning of ‘high-stakes assessment’ and its invaluable cousin, ‘low-stakes assessment’. What makes a test ‘high stakes’ and why do we hear so much about it?

“High-stakes assessment”: A test that has real-world implications

To understand whether an assessment is low or high stakes, one must consider the consequence of the outcome on the learner.

If the result of the assessment will have a significant impact on a student’s future, it is deemed to be high stakes. For example, the outcome of a university entrance exam or selective school exam will determine a student’s placement into their preferred education program. Therefore, these assessments have an impact on the test-taker’s future life and career choices and are therefore deemed to be high-stakes assessments.

Similarly, an assessment that counts for more than 50 per cent of a final grade such as some school or end-of-year university exams, or testing that results in achieving a formal professional qualification – such as the Chartered Accountants exams or the Bar exam – will be deemed high stakes.

The contribution of “low-stakes” testing to the education journey

Let’s contrast this with ‘low-stakes’ assessments. Low-stakes testing is a crucial form of assessment that supports the student’s learning journey and informs tailored teaching interventions without its outcomes directly influencing a students’ future.

In a previous article which explored the most common types of school assessments, we explained low-stakes tests that can sometimes be called ‘formative’ or ‘diagnostic’ assessments. They provide valuable insights to help navigate a learner’s individual strengths and additional learning opportunities. They inform the teacher, parent, learner and other key stakeholders of how to best support the learner to unlock their full potential and tackle any learning gaps. An example of this is the NSW Department of Education’s popular Check-in assessment for primary and early high school students.

Why “low-stakes” does NOT mean low-value, low quality nor low importance

All assessments may include the same quality item types and test formats but it’s their purpose and outcome that determine the stakes. Assessments such as NAPLAN, which assesses Australian school student’s fundamental academic skills, OECD PISA-based Test for Schools to inform school improvement plans and the ICAS exams to identify academic excellence in students are excellent examples of low stakes assessments. They are high-value assessments constructed from quality-assured test items deemed to be valid, reliable and fair. Yet, they are low stakes because they don’t directly impact a student’s final grades or directly influence their future choices.

It’s all in a name

So, next time you come across a reference to ‘high stakes’ and ‘low stakes’ testing, you may find it a little easier to navigate the literature or news coverage and be certain about the types of exams being discussed.

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