We Need to Stop Giving Timed Tests in Math – A Personal Chronicle

Timed Tests Can Cause Long-Term Damage

At right is a photo of me (Kathleen) in elementary school. I’m in the front left, looking forlorn. Indeed, I struggled to pass each grade, mostly because of math. 
I remember trying to finish timed tests of 100 addition or multiplication facts in 3 minutes.  I ended up handing in each test with about 40 problems done, and teardrops on the rest.

It’s difficult to define irony, but the photo at right comes close…  So does my current job as career-long math teacher and specialist. Some of my elementary teachers would roll over in their graves. 

The thing is this: I did know my facts. I was just slow. I still am.  Every new concept has to be carefully placed on the right hook in a huge, unwieldy scaffold of understanding so that it makes sense. Then I have to discuss it with someone or explain it to someone so that it solidifies in place. I don’t memorize worth beans, and I’m s-l-o-w. I would have been a lousy worker in the factory-based economy of the 19th Century. (I can’t see a boss putting up with me very  long in the cigar factory at right.)

But I do LOVE math now. I love puzzling out a new concept or problem, and the endorphin rush of finding a solution. I love the effect years of teaching math has had on my brain – I am more able to step back from emotional reactions and reflect on the objective elements of a situation (a skill that has saved my marriage more than once!). I love watching my students discover that they like math when it’s puzzling and engaging, rather than competitive and speed-based.

I was lucky, for a woman of my generation, to get a second chance at math. After dropping math in high school, I had to take it after all in college, for my Econ major, only to realize that it’s not that bad when it makes sense. It’s not that bad when speed doesn’t matter. It’s not that bad when your classmates help you study rather than make fun of you. It’s not that bad when the interconnectedness, the logical perfection and the visual beauty of mathematics finally hit you.

Not everyone is so lucky. The emotional damage done by a sense of  failure early in our school years is often irreparable and always wasteful.

This is a waste we cannot afford.


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