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In an article back in 2013, Jo Boaler wrote about research showing that timed math tests resulted in significant math anxiety and thus underachievement by many students. One of her statements that is maybe most perturbing is that “mathematics has become a performance subject”. It is no surprise that many math teachers pushed back pointing to the perceived societal requirement to do things ‘on time’. There was also an argument for automaticity, the importance of being able to do lower order computations without thinking so that the brain was free to think at a higher level. An entire business (Kumon Math) is built around the idea of worksheets, timed tests and repetition. The limitations of short term or working memory are well documented and so the importance of ‘knowing’ math facts seems indisputable. Many of those in agreement were teachers (and former students) who relayed their experiences of hating mathematics due to their sometimes extreme math anxiety. It is estimated that up to 50% of 1st and 2nd graders have some form of math anxiety.
So why do we have timed tests in mathematics? Is it really the best way to teach children? Let’s grant the arguments about needing to be able to do the lower cognitive tasks with facility. Is racing the clock still the most useful way for children to be able to gain that facility? It is true that math anxiety is not correlated to performance i.e. it is not necessary that someone with math anxiety does poorly on tests. It is also true that math anxiety does not transfer i.e. someone with math anxiety does not necessarily have reading anxiety. Embrace of that kind of testing led to the No Child Left Behind phenomena of constant testing that has proven not to lead to optimal learning. The key to performance, as always, is desire. Simply put, if humans want to learn something, they will do so as quickly as possible. For many, timed tests kill desire. For some, timed tests may actually be enjoyable. The National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics is skeptical about the need for them. As they write: “Fortunately, children can learn facts effectively without the use of timed testing. In a longitudinal study of twenty second graders, Kling found that without any timed testing or other rote fact activities, by the end of the year, the children demonstrated automaticity with addition facts (solved within 3 seconds) 95 percent of the time.”
Speed is not synonymous with skill, stress is not an optimal environment for learning, and there are many ways to differentiate math instruction to meet the needs of each student. Timed tests do not demonstrate unidimensional learning i.e. that results obtained by this method predict what capacity students have or even indicate what they’ve learned. Using a variety of assessment tools that use metacognitive skills intertwined with recall skills will, the research indicates, lead to deeper learning, recall that is just strong, and probably a more enjoyable experience for each student.
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