Testing: are the stakes too high?

What is High Stakes testing?

Often, in many schools, student learning is measured on an annual basis.

Increasingly, in many places in the USA, student performance on these assessments can be tied to the evaluation of teacher effectiveness. However, there is conflicting evidence about the effect that high stakes assessments is having on student and teacher creativity and motivation.

My school, as compared to a typical American Elementary School

Many schools in the US have adopted assessments that are created for the Common Core and Advanced Placement (AP).International schools often use AP, the Cambridge system, and/or assessments created for International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula (among others). The results of these tests are often used to determine whether students should be promoted to the next grade and/or graduate from school. Assessments are also used to place students in levels of RTI when they need extra support.

 Schools may also use the results of high stakes exams to show grade level and school improvement. Assessments like the SAT and ACT are used for college entrance while TIMSS (i.e., Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (i.e., Programme for International Student Assessment) are used for international achievement comparisons.

Our School has recently discussed a number of areas for improvement and we are in the process of improving how and what we assess. In the report “Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation’s Schools” by the American Psychological Association (APA), it states, “Measuring what and how well students learn is an important building block in the process of strengthening and improving our nation’s schools.” (APA, 2010).

However, I hope that, at our school, we implement more than simple standardized tests, like High Stakes testing, so as to not put undue pressure on our students.

At my school, in Kyoto, teachers and students are rarely evaluated using high stakes testing. The use of standardized testing is limited to the Eiken Test (which is voluntary) and, at the end of Elementary school, Junior high entrance exams. The student`s receive a report card every term, which contains grades and comments for every subject`s criteria. So, in terms of high stakes testing, our teachers and students experience relatively little when compared to typical American public school.

Our school seeking improvement in our assessment practices is a very positive step. As suggested in this video, “The secret to comparing schools based on test scores“, signs of improvement are important when evaluating a school. It also suggest that test scores from High Stakes tests are not the only indicator of teachers and students performance.

Indeed, groups like The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are seeking to replace High Stakes Tests altogether. PARCC is a group of states working together to develop a modern assessment that replaces previous state standardized tests. Groups like the  Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium seek to change assessment and gain a more holistic understanding of children, instead of a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy. At my school, we teachers are able to teach with more freedom as opposed to having to “teach to the test”

Implications of High Stakes testing and its effect on teaching.

  • In America, a majority of state and district officials report that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) testing requirements have led them to increase time for math and reading and reduce time for other subjects. Some view this as a negative while others see it as a positive move to help low-achieving students. (Center on Education Policy, 2006)
  • Teachers report contradictory effects of testing in their classrooms. While a large majority of teachers—79 percent—believe testing will have a negative impact on instruction, a similarly large majority—73 percent—said it has not affected their own teaching (Public Agenda, 2003). [View chart]

Does Instruction Affect The Results On High-Stakes Tests?

  • Teaching to the test can be good or bad: good if it means teaching a focused and aligned curriculum; bad if it reduces instruction to the memorization of test items (Popham, 2001; Baker, 2004).
  • New empirical studies show that given the right conditions, high-stakes testing can increase student learning.  They indicate that teachers can both prepare students for tests and for deep understanding  (Langer 2001, Greene, et al., 2003, Yeh, 2005, Williams, et al. 2005).
  • Aligning the curriculum to state standards combined with using test results to inform instruction will produce higher test scores than focusing on test-taking skills (Langer, 2001; Yeh, 2005; Williams, Kirst, & Haertel, 2005).

Will more High Stakes testing mean more pressure?

Another worrying aspect of high stakes testing is the pressure it can put on students, which can lead to low morale. Last year, suicide was the leading cause of death for Japanese children between the ages of 10 and 19. Among teens and young adults ages 10–24, there are roughly 4,600 suicide deaths in each year, and another 157,000 instances of hospitalization for self-inflicted injuries. According to research by Hokkaido University professor Kenzo Denda, 1 in 12 Japanese elementary school-aged children, and 1 in 4 junior high school students suffer from clinical depression.

Japan`s perennially high performance in PISA, suggests that we are doing quite well with few high stakes tests. ( Japan`s performance in the OECD`s PISA test is detailed in my infographic).

South Korea prides itself in the academic achievement. The country’s 15-year-olds have the highest reading scores among developed countries, they rank third in proficiency in science and mathematics, and more than 80 percent of them will go to college. The glowing statistics, however, have a dark side: Korea’s youth has one of the highest suicide rates. Suicide, in fact, is the leading cause of death among Koreans aged 15 to 24.

Youth suicide is on the rise in modernising India. In south India, where literacy rates, incomes are the highest, suicide rates are 10 times higher than in northern states, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal in 2012. I wonder how much expectations of academic success in south India contribute to this.

So, in analyzing the information on high stakes testing, we have to ask ourselves 2 questions:

Is more high stakes testing something Japan needs?

How great are the risks to our students` mental health?

The etymology of “high stakes” stems from the world of gambling, and given the already high standards of achievement of Japanese students and the very sad suicide statistics, I have to wonder if high stakes tests are really worth the gamble.


(2016). Wilsonquarterly.com. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://wilsonquarterly.com/stories/the-mystery-behind-japans-high-suicide-rates-among-kids/

(2016). Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://www.voicesofyouth.org/fr/posts/student-suicides-in-south-korea

Fast Facts. (2016). Nces.ed.gov. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=1

High-stakes testing and effects on instruction: At a glance. (2016). Centerforpubliceducation.org. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Instruction/High-stakes-testing-and-effects-on-instruction-At-a-glance

In modernising India, suicide is on the rise among young. (2016). Reuters India. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://in.reuters.com/article/india-suicide-idINKBN0JO2A420141211

Kamenetz, A. (2015). The Past, Present And Future Of High-Stakes Testing. NPR.org. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/22/377438689/the-past-present-and-future-of-high-stakes-testing

PARCC Gets High Marks For High Standards, T., Readiness, K., & Readiness, S. (2016). About. Parcconline.org. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://www.parcconline.org/about

What is Smarter Balanced? – Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (2016). Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from http://www.smarterbalanced.org/about/



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