Sunday, February 9, 2014

Fluency Does Not Equal Speed

As an educator with 23 years in the classroom I used to give math timed tests to build automaticity in the basic facts.  After attending many math projects and teaching middle school math the past 10 years I learned that problem-solving, critical thinking and explaining are the foundation for student fluency in mathematics.  I also know that the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) specifically cite "timed fluency" in the third grade standards.  As I deal with this issue personally with my 8 year old son and as an educator who wants teachers to re-visit their practices around timed tests, I have drafted this letter.

Dear Second (or Third, or any grade) Teacher,

I understand that you are working hard to prepare your students for future learning in mathematics.  I also know that you would not want to discourage your students or make them want to quit learning.  That being said I would like to ask you to look at your timed test practices.  I understand you are trying to build fact fluency in your students, however, fluency does not equal speed.  There are many more foundational skills that need to be developed to support fluency.  I also acknowledge that the timed tests are a small part of your math program.

A wise person once told me that if you want to complain about something be sure to offer alternatives or ideas for changing course or forging a new path.  So here are some ideas or alternate ways of giving/using timed tests to build automaticity.

First of all, I would like to request that you actively involve the students rather than continue to have them be passive participants.  By passive participants I mean they take the test, hand it in, it is corrected then given back to them with a score.  As passive participants, the students can pass off their performance or lack there of easily and the poor performers can justify giving up - "I can't do this, the teacher just proved it" might be one such justification.  I am suggesting that you involve the students in every step and make the timed tests a learning experience rather than an assessment.  So, I hope you are. Let me share some ideas in how you can do this:

When the students take the test, set the timer to stopwatch instead of counting down and project the timer so all the students can see it.  When the student finishes they record their finish time.  Just like an athlete (it is Olympics time), you can remind them that they are racing against themselves rather than each other.  Their goal is to decrease their individual time rather than competing against other students.  This is the first step in actively involving students in the process.  Have them graph their times and see their growth each time they test.  It is also a great way for you to track individual growth.  You and the students will be focusing on increments of improvement and perhaps the students will see the need to practice rather than giving up or feeling stupid

After the students are done and have recorded their time, correct the test together or have the students correct their tests with an answer key (if they are all on different tests).  Then discuss (or provide reflection questions) successful strategies students use, patterns in the problems that the miss of find difficult, ideas for improving, etc...  You can also ask the students "How are you thinking about these problems?" and "What are your shortcuts?" which will allow the students to learn from each other.  This will actively involve the students by having them share successes and struggles with the intent of promoting improvement and having the students take responsibility for where they are in their learning.

You can also have a "Timed Test Station" where students go and complete the process of setting the timer to count up, take the test, record their time, and then correct the test.  Then the discussion with the teacher or a parent volunteer needs to take place so the student reflects on where they are.  If you want growth and improvement the students have to know where they are and see their growth (or lack there of).  Then they can set goals for improvement.  Because they are a part of every step of the process, they cannot pass off the responsibility to anyone but themselves.

My last request would be to set a "reasonable" time for the students to achieve.  Perhaps it is 100 in 10 minutes.  You may be thinking that is not a rigorous level of performance.  I would argue that it allows for the diversity of your class.  Since the students are recording their times as they finish, the one who want to be the "fastest" can still aspire to that level.  The ones who have struggled or are considered "slow" have an attainable goal that allows for success rather than failure and giving up.

I understand that timed tests may be mandated in your school/grade level/district, but please consider being brave enough to try a new approach and start a new dialogue with your PLC.  With your team of educators you can explore new ways of building fluency and automaticity in your students.

Marilyn Burns stated in 1989: "Speed with arithmetic skills has little to do with mathematical power."

I am including some resources and research for you to review and consider:

Can We Please Consider the Evidence? The Ways in Which Assessment Policies and Practices Create Math Anxiety in Young Children.

Math Solutions: Faster Isn't Smarter


I have one final request:  Please do not tell me my thoughtful, problem solving son is "behind" in math because he is one of the slowest at the timed tests.  Instead, sit down and have a conversation with him at least once a week and ask him to explain his thinking and problem solving processes.  Find out how he thinks about numbers and how he takes them apart and puts them back together.  Ask him what strategies work for him and which do not.  Fluency is more than automaticity or speed or memorization.

Thanks for your consideration,
Kristen Beck - Mom and Educator

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