Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Another Personal Rant Against Timed Math Tests...

I am going to apologize upfront for my obsession with this topic.  As a STEM educator with a son who is 100% into STEM topics and is extremely literate in many areas, I am venting my frustration in public... May not be a good idea but it feels right at this moment.

Last February I crafted a post: Fluency Does Not Equal Speed, where I wrote a letter to grades 1 - 3 or 4 or 5 teachers asking them to re-think how they use timed tests with their budding mathematicians (students).  It was a cathartic process for me as I crafted a letter to share with all teachers who use timed math tests without singling out my son's experiences in his three short years of attending school.  I also made sure that I offered alternatives rather than just complain or whine... we all know those parents.  Unfortunately, I find it necessary to re-visit the topic after an eye opening experience I had with my third grade son this past week.

We were finishing up his homework after dinner.  He was moving back and forth from focused work to what I call his "border collie behavior" of pacing, jumping, and escaping to his happy place - (another post for another time).  He had completed the first page of his math and I do make it a point to sit with him and discuss his thinking as he solves problems (the math teacher in me making sure he is a problem solver not a rule follower).  He had six problems left to complete and we had 15 minutes before bath time, so I set the timer for 15 minutes.  Instantly, Tater fell into hopeless despair, crying, agitated, whining, and completely melting down.  SIX PROBLEMS!?  being a failure of a parent I assumed he was practicing his learned helplessness - acting like he cannot do something so that someone will swoop in and do it for him - another quality skill he developed in first grade and perfected in second grade.  He remained frozen, not able to complete his work and crying and tantruming for the entire 15 minutes.  I had taken television and the iPad away during what I thought was an Oscar award winning act being put on by my son (another parent of the year moment...).  As soon as the timer went off it took him about 5 minutes to calm down and he proceeded to complete the last six problems in less than 2 minutes.

The next morning while in the shower I was hit with a blast of clarity - he was not being helpless, he was frozen because of his experience being timed to perform academically.  He had begun being timed in mathematics and reading fluency in kindergarten.  Instead of practicing learned helplessness, he had learned that when a timer starts, the best thing to do is quit, give up, and/or not try.  Better to fail up front than to try your hardest and fail anyway.  Now I know where his "I'm stupid" comments that he made frequently last year originated.  My frustration with Tater the night before quickly became focused elsewhere.

  • If a teacher tells you that your child is "slower than the special education kids" in reading but you believe otherwise, ask for the assessment data, get a second opinion and kindly ask that your child no longer be assessed that way.
  • If a parent helper comes to tell you that your son is "bad at math" because he is "slower than the special education kids" on the timed tests (she corrects the timed math tests for the teacher) excuse your child from taking the timed tests and ask your child's teacher to tell his/her helpers not to discuss the achievement of your students with ANYONE.
  • Ask the teacher what research they are using to support their practice of timed math tests.
  • Please stop timing our children, your students.  
  • I will say it again Fluency does not equal speed, fluency is about being literate in whichever discipline you are learning and literacy is not based on how fast you can do something.
  • When someone asks you why you give timed math and reading tests, base your reason on research, if you don't have any research to support the practice, then abandon it
  • Remember what literacy is:
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as:
"the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts."  (I would throw in visual and audio resources also).

Here are some resources to consider:
NCTM Teaching Children Mathematics April 2014 - Jo Boaler
Faster Isn't Smarter - Cathy L. Sealy
Competitive Timed Tests Might Be Contributing to the Gender Gap in Math - Emily Richmond