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High-Stakes Testing and the Whole Child

STRATEGY: Ensure that high-stakes testing is well planned and executed and is only one part of understanding the whole child.

Knowing what students learn and how well they learn is crucial to improving our nation’s schools. Most states mandate the administration of tests to measure student performance, and then hold individual schools and school systems accountable for that performance. Preparing a classroom of students for a high-stakes assessment can be daunting. However, test scores—aided by other relevant information about the student’s knowledge and skills, such as grades, teacher recommendations, and extenuating circumstances—should influence the critical measures used when making high-stakes decisions such as tracking, promotion, and graduation. A thoughtful, measured approach to high-stakes assessment is important for students, the teacher, and the school.


The goal of high-stakes testing is to measure and improve student and school system performance, but testing should not be treated as a sacred cow. Discussing and implementing improvements that inform the formulation and execution of assessments needs to be done annually, as soon after test administration as possible. The school and district should ensure that all grade levels and teachers are implementing an intelligent plan of attack to guarantee that all students are ready for testing content; this approach requires adhering to sound planning principles by the teacher, the school, and the school district.

First Steps to Consider

High-stakes testing requires that the school community invest significant amounts of time and attention to this process.

  • Plan with the end goal in mind—identify the major skills students need to successfully perform on the high-stakes assessment and introduce those skills early on.
  • At the start of the school year, carve out time to define the “action words” used on the assessment to elicit specific student responses.
  • Plan activities that require students to observe and process how these specific action words are used in the context of actual assessments. Structure activities in which students work in groups to identify action words used on actual assessments.
  • Discuss how the assessment is formatted. Empower students by physically setting up some assessments, activities, and lessons throughout the year that match the high-stakes format.
  • Approach review as a yearlong process, which is iterative in nature.
  • Integrate review into chapter assessments and weekly lessons.
  • Highlight major themes prevalent on the high-stakes assessment and weave them into lessons and activities.
  • Include a diverse array of activities that focus on various assessment types throughout the year (e.g., labs, quizzes, presentations, demonstrations, web quests, simulations, etc.).
  • Expose students to “reviewing as they learn”; this approach will become seamless and nearly unnoticeable.
  • Mimic the pace expected on the high-stakes assessment throughout the year.
  • Enforce time restrictions on classroom items, so that high-stakes assessment restraints seem familiar.
  • If a resource is permitted on the year-end assessment, use it and refer to it often.

Complexities & Pitfalls

  • When used properly, tests are among the most sound and objective ways to measure student performance. But when test results are used inappropriately or as a single measure of performance, they can have unintended adverse consequences. High-stakes standardized testing that focuses on a multiple-choice approach can ignore other qualities and skills that young people need to develop.
  • Prepping for standardized tests can take away from the subject areas that are not tested, including those that foster creativity. High-stakes assessments can cause any subject that isn’t math or language arts to be pushed out of the classroom. Subjects such as science, social studies, and the arts are sometimes sacrificed to make time for more test prep.

Guiding Questions

  • How can students prepare for a high-stakes assessment? Are there guiding principles that work best for the students?
  • Why is the school having students take a high-stakes assessment? How does it fit into the school’s or district’s assessment system?
  • What has been communicated to the school community about this round of testing?