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The Appeal and Fear of High Stakes Testing

We live in a world where standardized tests—MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, SAT, TOEFL, IELTS—achieve two outcomes. First, they provide admissions officers with a seemingly objective evaluation of the knowledge and competencies possessed by the individual, in relation to a specific program or institution. Second, and much more troublingly, the mere mention of them strikes a profound fear in many students who have, will, or may one day take one. Given this pronounced effect, they may best be understood as high-stakes, high-anxiety tests.

What are High-Stakes Assessments for? What do they do?

The role of high-stakes examinations is ostensibly to provide each student the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and mastery of a subject in a controlled environment. Two students enrolled in a Bachelor of Commerce program at separate universities could graduate with the same grade-point average, but in reality possess different levels of knowledge and competency. High-stakes examinations are typically designed based on cognition, using multiple choice questions, and have become almost an industry in themselves, with study-guides, practice tests, and prep courses. A standardized test used for admission into graduate business programs like GRE or GMAT ensures that all students possess the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed. But these are only the intended outcomes.

In general many scholars encourage an awareness to the unintended outcomes of high-stakes testing. These reach far beyond just entrance exams, and are prevalent in all educational environments where high-stakes testing is in motion. When these outcomes were catalogued and analyzed by Brett D. Jones in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, he found that most unintended outcomes were negative. These are wide-ranging, from motivation to dropout rates, but perhaps the most significant is stress. In truth, high-stakes testing is anxiety-inducing not only for the student, but for the teacher, as they are responsible for ensuring the students learn enough to succeed.

On admissions testing in higher education, research since the 1980s has noted the significance of student anxiety. In a study on the GRE, researcher Donald Powers noted an array of stressors related to the test, including “the pressures of a timed test and the attitudes of test administrators” which led him to the conclusion that “test anxiety is both prevalent enough and severe enough among GRE test takers to warrant the continuing attention of the GRE Program”. As such, the question can be asked: Are the consequences of the unintended outcomes outweighing the benefits of the intended outcomes?

Validity and Barriers in High-Stakes Testing

Some have argued that the cognitive effectiveness of certain standardized admission tests do accurately capture the aptitude of a student for a certain program. These assertions sometimes rest on understanding the level of success a student achieves once they are in the program. However, some have questioned whether common student-success metrics accurately measure whether a student is succeeding in an academic program. Steven Stemler, for instance, contests the notion of first-year grade point average (FYGPA) as an indicator of success.

FYGPA is the most common metric for looking at the performance of new students, but it may not work as criteria, especially since “at some level, FYGPA serves as a proxy for the development of domain-specific knowledge; however, the theoretical rationale for this argument is weaker for FYGPA than for GPA within major, as students are typically enrolled in courses from vastly different content domains during their 1st year”. Essentially, FYGPA is the wrong means for the evaluation of student progress. So, how can institutions measure whether high-stakes assessments are effective?

For Stemler, this all leads into a bigger discussion of the mission of universities, and if these tests are actually reflective of those ideals. If a “dual-focus on the development of both domain-specific knowledge and more domain-general cognitive skills” is at the forefront, effective assessment design of admissions exams may be possible, but once students are admitted, there is no way to measure success.

So what can educators do with all of this? One key takeaway from discussions on standardized testing is simply thinking through the nature of assessment creation in the classroom. Considering the ways in which standardized tests operate, alongside their benefits and weaknesses, can help educators frame a holistic approach to assessments. For higher education administrators and admissions professionals, this may mean rethinking the use of high-stakes testing or including other, more analysis-based indicators of potential academic success. For instructors, this may mean incorporating questions and grading techniques designed to assess student learning outcomes.

For those unfamiliar with common assessment creation methods, designing appropriate assessments may feel overwhelming. To get started, check out these additional resources on the nature of assessment creation:

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