The timed test.
You all know what I am talking about. The teacher passes out a list of math problems, and says “Complete as many problems as you can in ___ minutes. Ready. Go.”
Timed tests are a very polarizing topic in education today. They have become a large part of many math curriculums in an effort to build and assess fact fluency. While many see timed tests as a necessary evil, parents are starting to speak up about the effects that they are having on their kids.
To Time Test, or not to time test? that is the question!
Timed tests are one of those things that people either love or hate. Some children are just good at them. They love challenging themselves to finish all the problems in time. They also love to see their improvement with each new test. But for other children, timed tests can cause crippling stress and anxiety, which ultimately prevents them from showing what they know, and may lead to test anxiety for many years to come.
But how did timed tests become so popular anyway?
The new Common Core State Standards use the term “automaticity,” which many educators have taken to mean “speed.” This is one reason why timed tests have become such a big part of todays math curriculums. However, many educators believe that developing number sense is a much better way to build an understanding of mathematics. According to the article Research Suggests Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), “Number sense – the ability to work flexibly with numbers, decomposing and regrouping them with confidence – is so critical to young children that it is known to separate high achievers from low achievers in mathematics.”
Teachers who support timed tests believe that they help prepare students for the real world. In high school and college, the reality is that students will need to take timed tests, such as the SAT and other college entrance exams, or even exams for professional certifications. By practicing timed tests from an early age, students will be better prepared for those high-stakes tests when they are older. Supporters also believe they teach students how to meet deadlines, which will ultimately prepare them for their careers. As Youki Terada puts it in her article Tips for Tackling Timed Tests and Math Anxiety, “To many teachers, not preparing students for that eventuality of timed testing felt too much like “setting the kids up for failure.”
The Flip Side: Dread and Anxiety
“Timed tests were the horror of my primary schooling. All I learned from them is that I was stupid and slow.”
-Excerpt from Tips for Tackling Timed Tests and Math Anxiety
Unfortunately, this quote summarizes many students experiences with the timed test. Some of you may have experienced this with your own children. They see a page full of problems, but cannot concentrate on any one problem long enough to solve it. They know the time is ticking down, which distracts them even more. There is no way they will come close to finishing before time is up. Sure enough, the timer goes off and the student has solved only a handful of problems. Even if they knew all the answers, the timer causes so much anxiety that they cannot accurately show what they know.
While this has been a problem in classrooms for many years, research is beginning to prove that timed tests can cause anxiety, specifically math anxiety, in many students, which can have drastic effects on students’ attitudes towards math for many years to come. In the article Research Suggests Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety, by NTCM, it states that “Occurring in students from an early age, math anxiety and it’s effects are exacerbated over time, leading to low achievement, math avoidance, and negative experiences of math throughout life.”
So how can you help your children overcome the dreaded timed test in an effort to lessen their anxiety and improve their experiences with math?
Three tips for a timed test transformation
1. Make practice fun
Practice your child’s math facts with them at home. Turn them into different games in order to lessen their anxiety and focus on what they actually know. I love using these easy math games created by Becky Spence from This Reading Mama with my tutoring students. They are low-prep, quick moving, and fun to play, not to mention she has created wonderful games for a large variety of math skills. You can check them out here.
2. Focus on improvement
Keep track of your child’s scores on each timed test at school and focus on his or her improvement, not the overall score. For example, if you child got 5/20 problems correct on the first test and 7/20 problems correct on the next test, celebrate that growth! I like to use a bar graph for a visual representation that is easy for kids to understand. Talk with your child about setting goals for their timed tests, encourage them, and celebrate with them when they meet their goal! This is a great way to change your child’s mindset about timed tests into a challenge they can work towards.
3. Talk with your child’s teacher
It is so important that you and your child’s teacher are a team. Make sure they are aware of your child’s anxiety towards timed tests. They might not even realize it is going on, and there may be things they can do at school to help. Even a friendly smile or pat on the back before the test can do a lot to ease a child’s nervousness. The teacher can also reinforce the goals you and your child set, and encourage your child at school to meet them.
Regardless of how you feel about timed tests, it looks like they are here to stay in the math curriculums… at least for a while. If you think your child needs help, or you would like additional suggestions, please feel free to reach out to me. I would love to work with your child to turn timed tests from an anxiety-filled obstacle into a challenge they enjoy working towards!