High Stakes Testing

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher



What is High Stakes Testing?
Tests are everywhere. Just think how many times we are all tested during the course of our lives. And not only language tests! Also think about how much depends upon the outcome of these tests. Most language tests are what we call 'high stakes' - that is, there's a lot riding on the result. It might be entry to university, getting a job, getting promotion, or earning the right to live and work in another country.

In the dictionary of language testing, Davies et al. define 'stakes' in this way:
"The extent to which the outcome of a test can affect the candidates' future. The term 'high stakes' is generally used to refer to a test upon which candidates' career or study plans hinge. Examples of such tests are the TOEFL and IELTS when used as selection tests for tertiary study, or a language test required of migrants in order to pursue their profession in the new country."

(Davies, A., Brown, A., Elder, C., Hill, K., Lumley, T. & McNamara, T. (1999). Dictionary of Language Testing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

The practice of high stakes testing is most frequently defended using the argument that it is the fairest way of providing access to education or jobs - much fairer than giving the best college places or the highest paid jobs to those whose parents or other relatives have positions of power or influence. Testing is supposed to be meritocratic. Also, some high stakes tests protect us. For example, we would not want someone to work as an air traffic controller unless they were capable of communicating with pilots in both usual and extraordinary situations. Or for an aircraft mechanic to to work from a manual he can't read (yes, it does happen - read here). But even those who accept these arguments realise that high stakes testing brings with it many problems that we need to address.

Watch this video

As you watch, ask yourself the following questions.

What is at stake for these students?

How do you think they feel?

Why do you think the authorities are so concerned with 'correct procedures'?

Why do the authorities go to such lengths to reduce noise?

You may wish to discuss your reactions to this video with colleagues.

What additional problems do you think high stakes testing might create? You may wish to make a list of these as you think about the impact of high stakes testing in your own country or institution. Is there any way to mitigate the negative effects? In order to do this, you may wish to visit the following web sites:

  1. China Prep: video following test preparation practices in China from the China Digital Times
  2. Chinese still value college entrance exam despite stress from the China Daily
  3. Stressful Times for Chinese Students from Time Magazine

Other resources:
Also see the video on Test Impact by Elana Shohamy.

Glenn Fulcher
February 2009