Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety

Prof. Jo Boaler is absolutely correct in her recent Ed Week article titled “Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety” in stating “… the schools in the United States [are] 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.” As a parent of two boys, I can attest to the undue emphasis on speed, ranking, and “right answers” in recent primary school mathematic’s pedagogy and curricula with its deleterious influence on children’s perceptions of mathematics. In fact, I blogged about this just yesterday.

Furthermore, Prof. Boaler’s concern about the Common Core exacerbating math anxiety is right on target. In fact, she is too kind when she says “Many test writers, teachers, and administrators erroneously equate fluency with timed testing.” It is no error on their part when they equate fluency with timed testing. They do so since one of the key architects of Common Core, David Coleman, explicitly defines CCSSM’s use of fluency to mean speed, as the following summary by David Ginsburg, in a recent Ed Week post, reveals.

“School leaders and math teachers must therefore understand the instructional implications of CCSS in addition to the content implications. This is why I begin Math CCSS training with a discussion of six shifts in instruction associated with CCSS:

1. Focus: fewer topics covered in greater depth
2. Coherence: connect learning within and across grades
3. Fluency: perform mathematics with speed and accuracy
4. Understanding: use mathematics in complex situations
5. Application: know when and how applying math can solve a problem
6. Dual Intensity: achieve fluency and conceptual understanding/application.”

Worse, including fluency in ‘dual intensity’ unfortunately amps up the emphasis on speed. For those who may question Mr. Ginsburg’s interpretation, watch the following video to hear David Coleman make these claims in his own words.

I do not question Mr. Coleman’s genuine desire to help all students achieve to the highest levels possible. I do question whether emphasizing speed as a desirable attribute is beneficial, since it will spur those using the CCSSM to measure speed, which is not a necessary, or even desired, trait for a mathematician, scientist, or other user of mathematical thinking.

Haste makes waste as grandma used to say.


PS  Full disclosure: I am a former student of Prof. Boaler. I agree with much of her perspective and have tremendous respect for her. However, I did not hesitate to state my opinion in class on certain statements / implications, such as “math is fun,” to further discourse on the matter.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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4 Responses to Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety

  1. xiousgeonz says:

    He spends an awful lot of time talking about spending *more* time teaching and *more* time learning, and when he talks about insisting on fluency, he also emphasizing giving the time to teach and practice so as to gain that speed and accuracy, and that different students will have different rates. I’m listening hard for him to say “get your kindergartners doing X number of problems in a minute,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to come… indeed, even in his discussion of “dual intensity” it didn’t.

    Perhaps the error is in equating “speed and accuracy” with the need to evaluate that with a timed test. Does David Ginsberg advocate timed tests?

    I am thinking, though, that no matter what the experts think they’re saying, if the principals and teachers decide to apply it in an awful way. He *does* talk about the camps of people who emphasize either procedural fluency or “rich” application, and that really we should strive for both. I didn’t hear any “ramping up” of emphasis on speed. It just really, honestly, is a whole lot easier to learn factoring and apply that to “rich” (a.k.a. word) problems if you know your times tables fluently…


  2. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Professor Taback at Lehman College was firm in his belief that math should not be time constricted. Of course this is true if work is being done and the student has not given up. We can of course use the rule of 3, I believe that it should take a student 3X as long as it takes us if we haven’t seen the problem before. My factor could be off. I try to give open book tests and extra time as much as possible. I also give more problems than most could finish and mark on a tlycurve; also grade a little differently on open ended sometimes for different students.


    • I use a similar metric of 3X. I do not give open book tests, but do allow extra time, if requested, and retests on all except final. I use 15%-point deltas between cut scores for grades, too. However, keep the bar high for all students. The larger spread for grades serves as a safety net.


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