Do timed tests cause math anxiety?

One third of students end up in remedial math in college and “the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low,” writes Jo Boaler, a Stanford math education professor, in Ed Week.  She blames timed math tests — solve 50 multiplication problems in three minutes — for causing math anxiety that cripples learning

Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest. The damage starts early in this country, with school districts requiring young children to take timed math tests from the age of 5.

Common Core State Standards, which call for math “fluency,” may encourage timed testing, Boaler worries.

Stress caused by timed testing can lead to changes in the brain, permanently hurting children’s ability to learn math, she writes.

There are many good teaching strategies for encouraging fluency in math, but the ones that are effective are those that simultaneously develop number sense—the flexible use and understanding of numbers and quantities—without instilling fear and anxiety. Strategies that involve reasoning about numbers and operations, such as the pedagogical approach called “number talks,” are ideal for developing fluency with understanding.

Beyond the fear and anxiety, timed tests also convey strong and negative messages about math, suggesting that math ability is measured by working quickly, rather than thinking deeply and carefully—the hallmark of high-level mathematical thinking.

Children can learn math skills and concepts in tandem, writes Barry Garelick on Education News.

Reformers criticize traditional math instruction as “skills-based,” implying “students who may have mastered their math courses in K-12 were missing the conceptual basis of mathematics and were taught the subject as a means to do computation, rather than explore the wonders of mathematics for its own sake.”

Students have struggled with math for a long time: If one dinosaur eats two cavemen per hour, how many cavemen can four dinosaurs eat in 30 minutes?  When I was in elementary school in the ’50s, before calculators or timed tests of math facts, many kids were anxious about math because there were right and wrong answers. We didn’t tackle the lowest common denominator to appreciate math’s beauty or explore its wonders. We though the point was to “get it.”

“New math” came in a few years later, when my brother was in first grade. In trying to teach concepts, it made kids even more anxious.

My daughter did timed tests of addition and subtraction problems in first grade — 25 years ago! They probably did multiplication in second grade.  She thought the tests were fun. Of course, she was good at it. But Boaler says math anxiety is worst for high-ability students.

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