The unintended consequences of high stakes testing for young people aspiring to higher education in Nigeria

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


In Nigeria, higher education and educational qualifications have a high value. This is because of their instrumental potential to serve as a vehicle for social and economic mobility, as well as a symbolic status for prestige and honour. However, many young people are unable to realise their aspirations for higher education due to different obstacles, one of which is High-stakes testing. Although merit-based certification and selection underpin the use of High-stakes testing, the literature suggests that they often have unintended consequences or effects. For a country like Nigeria where many young people contend with social issues like unemployment, poverty and inequality, the importance of understanding the effect of High-stakes testing on those who are choosing higher education as a means of combating these issues, cannot be overemphasised. Therefore, this study aims to explore the unintended consequences of High-stakes testing for secondary school leavers in Nigeria who were aspiring to go onto higher education. This was achieved by examining their views, hypothetical preferences and lived experiences of Nigeria’s senior school exit Certificate Examinations (exit CEs), in order to identify the unintended consequences of the exit CEs and establish how the exit CEs affect their aspiration for higher education. A Mixed Methods Phenomenological Research (MMPR) design provided methodological guidance, with the use of life-grids, semi-structured interviews and a vignette-based questionnaire for data collection. Qualitative data was collected from 10 research participants, which informed the subsequent design of the vignette-based questionnaire that was used to collect quantitative data from 268 respondents. Qualitative data analysis was carried out using the thematic analysis technique, while quantitative data analysis involved both descriptive statistical methods and frequency counts from thematic analysis. Findings from both types of data were integrated and interpreted by drawing heavily from Arjun Appadurai’s conception of the ‘Capacity to Aspire’. Appadurai had conceptualised the capacity to aspire as both a cultural and navigational capacity for successfully negotiating the requirements to realise aspirational wants and preferences. This study found that High-stakes testing in the Nigerian context can create a constraining environment for young people’s capacity to aspire to higher education through its reproduction of social and educational inequalities, the influence of significant others on the experience of the High-stakes exam and the nature of grade outcomes from the High-stakes exam. The study also identified other unintended consequences of High-stakes testing in the Nigerian context to include the; heightened participation in examination-oriented private tutoring, pervasive propensity for examination malpractices, altering of higher education aspirations in some ways, and delay to academic progression. These findings have implications for the deficit views that are held about the unintended consequences of High-stakes testing, and the possible ways to strengthen young people’s capacity to aspire to higher education within a context like Nigeria.
Date of Award29 Sep 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SponsorsCommonwealth Scholarship Commission
SupervisorSally M Thomas (Supervisor) & Angeline M Barrett (Supervisor)

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