High-stakes testing

High-stakes testing can be found across the world in most schools and classrooms. It is one of the most traditional ways of student assessments and information gathering tools for educators and schools. High-stakes testing intends to show us the effectiveness of schools, keep them accountable for high educational standards and use them to determine punishments, accolades, advancements, and compensations. The reason for this was and still is to make students, schools, and teachers take the test more seriously.

“A highstakes test is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability.” 1

This adds high pressure for all those involved in high-stakes testing and has become a hot topic worldwide concerning young people and education. I was educated in South Africa in a model C school ( a public school with split funding from parents, government, and donors). I moved to South Korea to teach English after graduating, and it has been my home for the past 5 years now. I feel this gives me a unique perspective when comparing both educational systems and those in the USA.

I have read, heard and seen many things related to high-stakes testing both at home and here in the ROK. Understanding high-stakes testing in South Korea has to do with their history (2)and how education was something reserved only for high social classes until very recently. Looking at the similarities and differences between the ROK, the USA and South Africa (RSA) regarding high-stakes testing can be revealing and surprising.

How does high-stakes testing affect students, educators, and schools?

  1. High-stakes testing: All three these countries have their own form of high-stakes testing. Where the USA allows for marks from all 4 years to be compiled into a final high school passing grade. South Africa and South Korea both present their students with a final exam that will determine whether or not you will be able to enter university. So the high-stakes pressure and affects are pretty drastic for students futures.
  2. Test prep- teaching to the test: In South Korea, students are subjected to cram schools from an early age and academics take precedence over balanced development. Students spend long hours in cram schools to supplement their education. Unlike South African and US student’s they have very little free time to spend on interest or talents. In the RSA and US, most test prep is left to teachers at school and students themselves to prepare, placing a lot of responsibility on these individuals. Across the board teachers also feel the pressure to show good results that leads them to teach to the test rather than focusing on a broader range of standards and skills students might need.
  3. Money: In South Korea parents, schools and educational stakeholders invest large amounts of money into students, cram schools and any other “thing” that will ensure more success on “high-stakes” tests. Many parents often work more than one job to support their child’s cram-school tuition alone. The same could possibly be said for other countries too, but usually, supplemental education is an option rather than a given like in the ROK, for students who are struggling to keep up at grade level. In both RSA and the USA teacher would often offer their time for free to help students get caught up, or students can sign up for tutoring buddies (depending on the school).
  4. Mental-physical health: High school is pretty stressful for all students across the world and the argument can be made that they are all pushed to the extreme. In South Korean however, I really do think students mental and physical health are pushed to the limit especially 3rd-year high school students who take a final exam that determines their university eligibility. The pressure is so high for this singular test that even younger students (Elementary and middle school) feel it long before they reach high schools. Due to this South Korea also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. 3
  5. Scandals: Cheating is a problem in many testing settings, but desperate times calls for desperate people to cheat even more. Not too long ago the entire SAT was canceled in South Korea after tests were leaked (4). South Africa too has been struggling over the years to eliminate end of year exam cheating. Although the government is making examples of schools, educators, and students who do get caught it does little to deter future cheating. With a failing education system and more students wanting to go to a limited number of tertiary education providers this will remain a problem (5).

What you should keep in mind:

Parents and school evaluators should always keep in mind that these test to do not form a comprehensive picture of the learner or schools’ academic powers and that several other factors might influence the initial results e.g.,. An ELL student or trauma etc. Instead, we should also look at signs of long-term improvements of academic performances. How does the school/student perform in various subjects? How do other students (similar to your own) do?

High-stakes testing is a small glimps into the academic world, an easy way to assess a large group of students but does not provide any information about where or why students are struggeling and how it can be adressed. It is not the end-all, be-all, and can cause serious problems on a number of levels for any participants. Considering some new alternatives to this type of testing might just reveal better test scores and less negative long-term effects.

Alternatives to high-stakes testing:


*Multiple measures including:

Performance-based assessments, portfolios, game-based learning that assess their skills and knowledge in an authentic way.

*Stealth assessments.




  1. Concepts, L. (2014, August 18). High-Stakes Test Definition. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://edglossary.org/high-stakes-testing/
  2. C. (2017, February 15). Supplemental Teaching and the Korean Student. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://wp.me/p87kXp-4
  3. Jeunes, L. V. (n.d.). Student Suicides in South Korea. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://www.voicesofyouth.org/fr/posts/student-suicides-in-south-korea
  4. @kaylawebley, K. W. (2013, May 10). For the First Time, SAT Test Gets Canceled in an Entire Country. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://world.time.com/2013/05/10/for-the-first-time-sat-test-gets-canceled-in-an-entire-country/
  5. Cheating scandal hits matric final exams again. (2015, November 17). Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://www.htxt.co.za/2015/11/17/cheating-scandal-hits-matric-final-exams-again/
  6. G. (2013, February 05). The secret to comparing schools based on test scores. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from https:// www. youtube.com/watch?v=yhRHnXZGG3M
  7. Kamenetz, A. (2015, January 22). The Past, Present And Future Of High-Stakes Testing. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/22/377438689/the-past-present-and-future-of-high-stakes-testing

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