Definition of high stakes examination

High stakes testing is a commonly used term in education space. Broadly, high stakes testing is of two types. One, high stakes for teachers where student scores decide their pay and terms of contract. Two, scores decide students' further opportunities.

It is also perceived that the gaokao exam in China is of very high stakes and has perverse incentives. But then what about 10th board exams? IIT JEE, CAT? Are these high stakes? The other argument here being, the perception of stakes is subjective and can widely vary. In this context, I tried searching for a concrete definition of the term 'high stakes testing for students' in the context of education but I couldn't find one. This post attempts to build one such definition.

I hypothesize that a high stakes test for students satisfies all the following criteria.

1) Exam completely denies opportunities ahead: An exam conducted in a school where teacher strictly orders child to perform well might seem high staked to a child but it doesn't come under the category of high stakes testing that we talk about.

We need to see if the exam determines whether the child can pursue career ahead in that field. For example, if we were to say, those who don't get x number of marks in 10th grade can't take up Maths in +2, we are completely denying further opportunities to students here. This would make the test high stakes. Note that this is different from students with low marks getting admissions only into not-so-good colleges. In this case, students are getting admission at least somewhere, they aren't being denied the opportunity completely.

2) Timing of the test: If the test is denying further opportunities, the next criteria to be looked into is - at what stage of child's career is the test being conducted?


If the test is conducted at 5th grade and its results determine children's entry into high school, it is a high stakes test. On the other hand, CAT also determines entry into MBA colleges but it is at a very later stage of life and it doesn't deny opportunities as much as a test at 5th grade does.

3) Gradation of the opportunities available: What happens to the child if (s)he doesn't perform well? What are the alternatives?

In case of CAT, if not one IIM, then there are good number of other colleges to pursue the course. Even if not that, it's not the end of life. In case of IIT JEE, since it is at relatively earlier stage of life and the there is a steep decline in the quality of colleges after IITs, it might be called as high stakes.


We must note that this is also a function of time. These days, with the growing economy, there are ample opportunities available for people to excel even if they don't go to IIT, hence the high stakes perception of the exam is coming down.

4) Number of attempts available:  The final criteria is the number of attempts available. If there is only one attempt available, it is relatively high stakes compared to having multiple attempts.

As per the above criteria, the Chinese gaokao exam is high stakes exam because a) it filters children at end of school, denying opportunity to study ahead b) conducted at early stages of career c) the alternatives are not good d) limited number of attempts. I believe this makes a true high stakes test. The other true high stakes exams are also of similar nature.

In case of 10th grade exams in India, the first itself criteria don't hold because, not getting good marks in 10th grade doesn't officially make students ineligible to pursue studies ahead. So, this isn't a high stakes test.

Though 10th board exams don't satisfy the above criteria, it's a big deal because people attach value to it, as these marks are perceived to reflect students ability to some extent. Getting good marks mightn't mean much but not getting good marks has a negative signalling effect. For that matter, any test at the end of school which aims to benchmark students, thereby having a signalling function will definitely get this attention. But it shouldn't be called as high stakes test merely because of this and this is an important point to note.

This post is prelude to my upcoming post on board examination reforms. It's to clarify the notions about high stakes examinations before we get into the discussion on reforming board exams because the debates any proposal to increase quality of board exams lead to discussion on high stakes testing.

1 comment:

  1. I submit another criteria for your consideration. The "time-period of the exam process" may decide the opportunity cost, if one is undergoing dedicated preparation for a particular exam. The example in my mind is, of course, the Civil Services Exam! :)

    ReplyDelete