Dear Dr. Linda,

Eddy, our son, is a 10th grader who is taking advanced math. He’s an excellent math student and wants to become an engineer. However, he’s not doing well this year because the teacher gives timed tests. You wrote about the issue with “math-a-minute” for elementary students once. I remember reading it—Eddy was one of those kids who loved math but hated to be timed. It still makes him nervous because he processes slowly.

I’ve spoken to his math teacher many times because Eddy knows the subject, but he often doesn’t get credit for it because he simply can’t go that fast. The teacher argues that if my son is in advanced math he should be able to think quickly and that if he can’t, he can come up with strategies that will help him. He even said that if he can’t think quickly, he shouldn’t be in advanced math. I just don’t agree with him.

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Dear Pat,

There are two sides to this issue. The educators who argue for timed tests feel that timed tests push students to become more fluent mathematicians. They believe that scientists and mathematicians need to think quickly when working on complicated projects. They argue that eventually, in the workplace, basic math facts and formulas should be second nature, whether it’s in algebra, geometry, trig or calculus. And, to some extent, this is true. The more often we practice anything mentally, the better and stronger the associated neuronal connections are and the faster those neurons “fire.”

Those who argue against timed tests think that because of them, we are losing many students who are excellent in math and have great prospects for STEM-related jobs in the future. And they’re right. There is some evidence that timed tests cause some children’s brains, especially those in first and second grade, to change in a negative way—producing math anxiety and resultant low math achievement. The anxiety instead of the math fact is what gets learned.

Much of this phenomenon begins with “math-a-minute” in the early grades. This is when children are graded on how quickly they can do the addition facts or the times tables. A common task is for children to do 100 addition or multiplication facts in one minute. For children who process information more slowly, even if they understand the concepts, math becomes a nightmare. The effect is similar for children who create wonderful stories but “fail” writing because their handwriting is poor. I wonder sometimes how many able writers we have lost because of a teacher or parent having them rewrite and rewrite because the handwriting wasn’t neat.

So, what do good teachers do? Many teachers have timed tests, but don’t grade them. Some teachers use timed tests as a perfect Friday afternoon activity and allow kids to compete against their own prior times—not the times of other students. This gives all students the opportunity to come up with strategies to improve their timing without the stress of grades. Kids who process information more slowly get the best of both worlds this way.

Children learn the most through games, socialization and repetition. This way, being timed isn’t negative, it’s part of a fun activity with their classmates. Plus, the math student who processes slower than his peers, but understands math just as well, is not penalized.

The issue is grading based on the results, when the grade should reflect understanding of the material taught, not the speed with which it can be demonstrated. Unfortunately, college entrance exams and most standardized tests are timed and many people freeze when taking them, overwhelmed by anxiety. That’s why SAT and ACT scores aren’t the only criteria used by some colleges for admission. And, in the work world, even in jobs that involve mathematical computations, no supervisor will be standing over these kids with a stopwatch.

Dr. Linda

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