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ECS High School Policy Center (HSPC)

Using assessment tests for "high-stakes" purposes such as grade promotion, graduation or school review is gaining public support as a way to determine how good a job public schools are doing. Policymakers see high-stakes tests as a way to raise standards and achievement and hold students and educators accountable. This site provides information on which states mandate exit exams under the What States Are Doing Section, Quick Facts regarding these high stakes assessments and reports, in Selected Research and Readings, that examine how exit exams are aligned with No Child Left Behind, curriculum and other state standards. Links to other organizations with information on high school exit exams can be found under Other Web sites.

High-stakes statewide assessments that are aligned with state content and performance standards can be used for many purposes. It is important for policymakers to understand and revisit as needed what the purposes for high-stakes assessments are so that implementation and use of the results are consistent with the purposes. Clearly articulated purposes also clarify to schools and the public what the overall goal is and what criteria should be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the system to meet stated goals. Purposes and benefits of high-stakes assessment programs include the following:

  • Assures that standards are taken seriously, motivates teaching of the standards and holds schools accountable for student performance
  • Motivates students to learn and increases emphasis on student achievement
  • Provides the same high expectations and the same basis of evaluation for all students
  • Provides information that can inform policymakers on the quality of education
  • Monitors school improvement efforts
  • Identifies student strengths and weaknesses to target instruction
  • Allows recognition to schools and teachers of students who perform high and/or improve performance.
While high-stakes assessment is used extensively, it is not without its limitations and detractors. Much of the criticism is concerned with the consequences of such testing on teachers, curriculum and students. These criticisms are briefly listed here, along with other limitations, to provide a sense of what arguments against high-stakes testing are based on.
  • What you test and how you test it is what you get; you do not get what is not tested.
  • Too much emphasis on a single test score, which might not reflect true changes in student achievement.
  • Statewide assessment leads to a more narrow statewide curriculum.
  • The tests are unfair to low socioeconomic students and schools.
  • High-stakes assessments result in too much time preparing students to take the test.
  • High-stakes assessments do not provide information that can improve instruction.
What Makes a Good High-stakes Assessment System?

In spite of the controversy surrounding standards-based assessment systems, policymakers can take steps to alleviate problems and improve the impact and uses of assessment systems. Suggested steps include setting standards first — before assessments are developed — and setting standards that are high but attainable. Don't rely solely on a single test when making important decisions about students but use multiple indicators such as grades, attendance, Advanced Placement course enrollment and performance assessments when making decisions about promotion, retention, graduation or rewards. Set both long- and short-term goals for all schools to reach. Short-term goals allow schools to start in different positions. Long-term goals permit high expectations for all schools, with a subsequent expectation that lower-achieving schools will have greater growth rates than high-achieving schools.


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