We Need to Stop Giving Timed Tests in Math – What Does the Research Say?

We are often criticized for opposing timed tests.

  • “How will children learn their facts?” people ask, and
  • “When I was a kid, we had to memorize our times tables, and it worked for us.”

In part 3 of this blog series, we’ll look at answers to the first question.   However, the more we study the second statement, the more we realize, “No, actually it DIDN’T work.”  In reality, a huge segment of American adults (more than 90% according to a recent Forbes survey) report having at least some math anxiety. This negatively affects career choices, personal financial outcomes, civic decision making and even personal health management.

Let’s look at some of the data explaining the (perhaps counterintuitive) claim that timed tests hurt more than they help.

1. Jo Boaler (of course)

This Boaler article from an NCTM publication (Also see this article in Scientific American)  documents Dr Boaler’s long-held belief that speed-based expectations around math instruction can do enormous damage to students. 
“Occurring in students from an early age, math anxiety and its effects are exacerbated over time, leading to low achievement, math avoidance, and negative experiences of math throughout life.” The article explains that many teachers are conflicted about this, and only use timed tests because they are required by the district. One teacher admitted that the first time she gave a timed test, many of her students cried; she now gives them so that her students will “get used to them.”

2. The Harvard Business Review (follow  the money)

“Americans Need to Get Over Their Fear of Math” sees the fear of math as a liability for the  future of the US labor force.

“As early as first and second grade, nearly half of all students indicate they are “moderately nervous” to “very, very nervous” about math… If Americans are to compete for the STEM jobs of the future, it’s
imperative that we help those who are anxious about math to approach rather than avoid it.”


The National Center for Biotechnology Information (there’s science in our learning curves)

“Spotlight on math anxiety” references dozens of studies on the phenomenon of math anxiety. “In educational settings, individuals may suffer from specific forms of test and performance anxiety…unquestionably, the most prominent of all of these is math anxiety.” The article goes on to explain how  “math anxiety in early grades, such as Grade 2, influences math performance not only in the same grade but also in subsequent grades.” And “Math anxiety not only impairs genuine mathematical cognitive processes, but overarching cognitive processes that depend on fluency as well.” In other words, math anxiety actively interferes with  the normal acquisition of math understanding.

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