Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety

My article in Education Week:

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 know 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 math.”

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.

30 thoughts on “Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety

    • Research shows that these anxieties persist. Many of my students at the community college level who are suffering from math anxieties recall with dread experiences in their elementary years. These early experiences can start a negative cycle of poor performance and negative self talk which continues for the rest of their academic career

      Tim

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  2. “responses showed that the test prompted anxiety in one-quarter of the students in each class,”

    I wonder what percent of students feel anxiety on spelling tests or standardized writing tests such as the ERB, or any test for that matter?

    “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.”

    I guess it comes as a surprise to me. Can you please explain why “highest achievers” experience the greatest degree of cognitive dysfunction? And what does cognitive dysfunction look like?

    Thanks!

    • I can tell you what they mean by “highest achievers” with “cognitive dysfunction”–I teach AP Calculus BC, a fastpaced course of very abstract ideas, and there are students who, in the non-stressed environment of the classroom discussions, will present methods/solutions of great precise & insight, but then, in a timed test, blank out on Questions the likes of which they’ve answered in the past.

  3. As a math educator of 25 years I have rarely seen the famed student who does great in class and then blanks out in exams. I think the problem of math anxiety is much more subtle and long term. The damage that is done between 3rd grade and 8th grade means that lots of kids who could do AP or IB Maht HL and other challenging Math course never get the chance. The lack of confidence means that they are avoiding the subject well before 11th grade. That does not mean that we do not see math anxiety in AP Calc classes. However, it is sen in class and not just in exams. As I said the damage has already been done.
    I would also suggest that timed testing is merely a symptom of a wide range of situations that make student anxious in Math classes. This would include the learning of arithmetic algorithms, badly posed “word problems” and worst of all elementary teachers who themselves have math anxiety.

    • Tim,

      Test anxiety does exist, and there are students who do well in study groups and in class that freeze when it comes to a test. As you observe, since they test poorly, they do not make it to the advanced classes. I have had several students at the community college level with test anxieties and I have allowed for alternate testing strategies. They were not stellar students, but they did perform reasonably well in class.

      Tim

      • Agreed! I have had seen students that perform well in class, can eloquently express their thinking, and then have difficulty on tests. It happens in higher levels of coursework too.

  4. I agree that there are lots of contributing factors to Maths anxiety. Certainly the continuing testing builds anxiety but the number of adults/ parents that believe that saying “I’m not very good at maths” and not feel ashamed or embarrassed has given our youth a massive get out clause so that they don’t have to worry about really trying.
    This is compounded by the way the subject is taught and then continually tested leaves students incredibly anxious about what is a fantastic subject.

    Although I am a new teacher, in the UK, I see students that have given up on Maths a long time ago and have no desire to succeed meaning that they enter college with a need to sit a remedial class or an adult numeracy class eventually.

    Is there a single answer? I think that the straight answer to this has to be no. Dylan William says that the only reason that we give students a mark is because we have a spreadsheet or mark book that needs filling in. I have been turning my classroom into a practical based environment. Similar to Art and Design and Technology where instead of standing at the front of the class and using the interactive whiteboard all the time I can demonstrate around a grouped table the skills and problems faced by either using paper, multilink cubes, paper plates or even a bar of chocolate.

    I have broken away from the traditional and spend many hours preparing these practical demonstrations and tasks so that the students can learn and develop skills from. Maths is a subject that doesn’t need these continued tests to see a pupils ability. Designing a poster or creating a lesson plan based on things that they have learnt is far more valuable then telling a student they failed because they didn’t achieve a certain percentage! Pupils also feel less pressured about these forms of assessment as they don’t see it as one.

    • Andy,

      I’m interested in the success you are having with your practical problem based math teaching. Research is showing that students do better if the problems have a practical application they can see and use. For example, students were taken grocery shopping and were asked to do a number of math calculations as a part of their shopping. They did much better than when confronted with the same problems in a test with no reference to a practical application.

      Do you have your teaching and problem strategies posted anywhere?

      Tim

      • Tim,

        Can you link to any such research? I have found conflicting ideas around this, including some people that consider it a “myth” that one needs practical application to understand a math problem.

  5. We are having a debate on timed tests in our middle school right now. Some teachers feel that we should time our tests because it helps students prepare for timed standardized testing. I don’t see how doing that actually prepares them, but I’m having trouble finding research that supports either position for middle school (11-13 year old) students. Most of the research I see is on timed fluency tests on younger children.

    • As you decide, think about what is the point of timed math testing? In any math or science field, methodology and accuracy are the most important outcome. So why push for the the “hurry up and do it wrong” mentality? In most real world situations, speed is not the driving force…accuracy is the essential component. I taught math for 8 years where the program required timed test for basic math skills…I gave my students the option of speed vs.accuracy. I told them It is better to have 50% done and 100% correct than 100% done and 80% correct. Since they were not marked down for not completing the task but how accurate they were, the pressure to get all 50 problems done was gone and their accuracy went up.
      Also, if this pressure is causing kids to dislike math what’s the point?
      Who came up with timed stuff anyway? Like most standardized tests …the creators of those tests haven’t been in the classroom lately or ever for that matter. Good luck with you decision process.

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  8. Amen! So true! As a victim of timed math tests myself I do not want to do this to our young students. The suggestion that math requires one to work quickly rather than “thinking” is a critical problem. I still remember trying not to get stressed out by the time factor because I couldn’t remember what I knew….as you said….cognitive abilities are blocked by stress. Memorizing is not the only strategy needed for developing good math skills. Let’s don’t turn many of our students off by the stress associated with these timed tests!

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  10. I completely second the opinions expressed! I really hate giving timed tests to my students. This creates anxiety, discomfort, and diffidence. It turns students who are interested in math away from it. Also, when I’m grading the tests, I can see a lot of rush and the messy handwriting shows that they are anxious and lost, although I am confident they would have been able to finish everything correctly had they not been under such stress.

    Talking about grading, I recently stumbled upon an ed tech tool called ClassroomIQ (https://classroom-iq.com). It’s very helpful for grading homework, tests, and assignments. I found it be to really useful and convenient. I now can grade stuff a lot quicker, and my students like “digitally graded” homework more. Are you experienced with ed tech? Can you also recommend some test or grading related ed tech tools? They are very helpful and handy.

    Again, great piece of article!

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  14. I’m confused. I have very slow processing speed (57 points lower than my FSIQ). It’s considered a severe learning disability, and now that I’ve retired from the military and gone back to school in my late 40s, I am given time and a half on math tests. I’m getting As on those tests (although class is nothing nothing special, just calculus prep class, so not to the upper levels yet). Our weekly timed, high-stakes quizzes are just killing me though. It’s very disheartening. Miss any part of any question and zero points. Still, I do manage to pass some of them. Anyway, I don’t understand why the author is saying that students like me have good working memories. We’re methodical and can definitely get things right if we’re not rushed, and those things probably will serve us well in higher math (assuming we also have the sheer mental horsepower), but I thought that it was people with great working memories who did well on timed things (not us slow folks).

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  20. Cousins of ours in the first and second grades have developed math anxiety at the ripe old ages of 6 and 7 because their teachers have them do daily timed math fact drills. Although both girls are extremely bright and tested in the 98th percentile on the NYC G&T test, they now doubt their math ability. They have lost confidence. We homeschool and our kids aren’t subjected to timed drills, but neither are they as fluent in their math facts. However, they have a grasp of math concepts the is ahead of their cousins. Still, I think math fact fluency is important so that it doesn’t get in the way of bigger things. For instance, when I was in college we weren’t allowed to use calculators during physics exams. I would always make some error in calculation, but not in concept and thus lose a few points for not getting the exact answer. My question is, how to you build this fluency with math facts in ways other than timed tests?

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