What is High Stakes Testing?

The phrase ‘high-stakes’ conjures up images of a smoke filled casino. At 6AM on a Tuesday, a desperate gambler bets his last stack of chips on a game of blackjack. He’s dealt a 17. “Hit me,” he says in a shaky voice…


What Is High-Stakes Testing? -Magoosh


Though high-stakes testing is a world away from the Las Vegas blackjack tables, a common thread ties both activities together: a lot rides on the outcome. Does the gambler get to take home a fortune? Do you get into your dream college?

In this article I’ll discuss high-stakes testing in the United States, and why the SAT/ACT are prime examples. So if you’re getting ready to ‘roll the dice’ with either of these tests, take a few minutes to learn about why they’re so important for your future.


What Makes a Test High-Stakes?

First of all, there is no such thing as an official high-stakes test. Have you ever felt anxious about doing well on a Math test? That test was a high-stakes test. Has passing a class all come down to the final exam? That exam was a high-stakes test. For you or your peers in high school, AP exams are high-stakes tests because a good score will reduce the cost of college later on.

Mention high-stakes testing to just about anyone, though, and you’ll hear about the SAT/ACT. Young Americans are told over and over that both tests are the key that will unlock their futures. High scores are necessary to gain admission to selective colleges. Yet are there any other reasons why these tests are high-stakes? Let’s find out.




What Is High-Stakes Testing? -Magoosh


A variety of scholarships use SAT/ACT scores as a determining factor for awarding money. If you are considering scholarships to pay for college, here are a few avenues of research to see if your scores make the cut:


Course Placement

You may think that only a high AP score will let you skip a class or two in college, but that’s no longer the case. Both the ACT and SAT II Subject Tests influence course placement decisions. These policies vary wildly between colleges, so do your research in advance. Here is an example so that you can see how a college explains its specific requirements.

Also, even if your dream college doesn’t require SAT Subject Tests, submitting scores can make your application shine brightly when compared to similar applicants who didn’t submit scores.

There is one added benefit of using SAT/ACT scores to place yourself into college courses. A majority of community colleges and state universities use test software (ACCUPLACER and/or COMPASS) to place incoming students into English, Math, and science courses. These tests are highly unreliable in predicting student success. So if an admissions counselor asks if you would like to take either of these tests, just say no and have your college use your SAT/ACT scores for course placement.


Final Thoughts

Doing your best on the SAT/ACT can have a lot of fringe benefits in addition to getting in to your dream school. Yet don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Until you have the score(s) you need to succeed, focus on preparing for test day.

Good luck preparing for the big day, high-stakes testing scholars. See you next time!


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  • Thomas Broderick

    Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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