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Topic: [ncsm-members] Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety
Posted: Jul 3, 2012 3:05 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Tuesday, July 3, 2012. See

Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety

By Jo Boaler

Mathematics education is in crisis: A third of all schoolchildren end
up in remedial math courses, and the level of interest in the subject
is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the
United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose
of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their
schools. 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. This is despite
research that has shown that timed tests are the direct cause of the
early onset of math anxiety.

Timed math tests have been popular in the United States for years.
Unfortunately, some of the wording in the Common Core State Standards
may point to an increased use of timed tests. From the 2nd grade on,
the common standards give math "fluency" as a goal. Many test
writers, teachers, and administrators erroneously equate fluency with
timed testing.

It is critical that we take a moment to review the emerging evidence
on the impact of timed testing and the ways in which it transforms
children's brains, leading to an inevitable path of math anxiety and
low math achievement.

The personal and educational consequences of math anxiety are great.
Math anxiety affects about 50 percent of the U.S. population and more
women than men. Researchers knowRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader that
math anxiety starts early. They have documented it in students as
young as 5, and that early anxiety snowballs, leading to math
difficulties and avoidance that only get worse as children get older.
Researchers also know that it is not related to overall intelligence.

Until recently, we have not known the causes of math anxiety and how
it affects the brain, but the introduction of brain-imaging research
has given us new and important evidence. Sian Beilock, an associate
professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, for example,
has found that when children are put under math stress, they are
unable to execute math problems successfully. The stress impedes
their working memory-the area of the brain where we hold math facts.
Beilock found that stressful math situations cause worries that
compete for the working memory, causing it to be blocked. She also
found that math anxiety has an impact on those with high, rather than
low amounts of working memory-the very students who have the
potential to take mathematics to higher levels.

In Beilock's recent research conducted with children in 1st and 2nd
grade, she found that levels of math anxiety did not correlate with
grade level, reading level, or parental income. For the most capable
students, the research confirms, stress impedes the functioning of
their working memory and reduces achievement. Research conducted at
Stanford revealed that math anxiety changes the structure and
workings of the brain.

When I moved to the United States from Europe a few years ago, I was
shocked to learn that many school districts give children, as early
as 1st grade, 50 math problems to solve in three minutes. For many
students, it is not an exaggeration to describe this experience as
torturous. When teachers of 2nd and 4th graders in one elementary
school I visited asked students to write down how the test made them
feel, responses showed that the test prompted anxiety in one-quarter
of the students in each class, but that anxiety was not correlated
with test success. Indeed, some of the students with the highest
levels of success were those who indicated the greatest anxiety and
made comments such as "I feel nervous. I know my facts, but this just
scares me."

It should not come as a surprise that the highest achievers displayed
the greatest anxiety; in fact, neuroscience tells us that these
students experience the greatest degree of cognitive dysfunction. But
this anxiety does not only affect high-achieving students. Second
graders from across the achievement spectrum described the tests as
making them feel "upset" and "unhappy" and that they are "terrible at
SIDEBAR: "It is critical that we take a moment to review the
emerging evidence on the impact of timed testing and the ways in
which it transforms children's brains."
Timed tests have been given to young children in school districts in
the United States with the best intentions, but with negative
consequences for many years. The brain research that has emerged
recently could be the impetus for shifting the momentum. But the
inclusion of the word "fluency" in the common standards may mean that
educators will continue to use these tests, and that they will even
be included as part of the new common-core assessments.

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. The ideas
students develop about math in elementary school are critical for
their future in the subject.

Policies in education rarely draw from research knowledge. But I
would argue that this particular policy-of giving young children
timed math tests-is one of the clearest ways schools damage children,
and we now have evidence of the extent of the damage.

The United States faces a serious problem with widespread
underachievement in mathematics, and insufficient numbers of students
available to continue mathematical, scientific, and technological
innovations. Educators and policymakers share an important goal: to
create math classrooms where students are excited to learn the
subject, rather than being stressed and worried about their
performance under pressure. There is no disagreement about the goal,
but policies that require the testing of young children under timed
conditions may be inadvertently achieving the opposite. Assessments
for the common core could break or perpetuate this cycle of damage.
Let's hope they do the former.
Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford
University and the author of What's Math Got To Do With It? How
Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least
Favorite Subject. (Penguin, 2009).
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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