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.”
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.