Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Terrible Timed Tests


We are on our fourth year of using RightStart math curriculum.  I love almost everything about it and it's worked really well for us.  One thing in particular that I love is there are no timed tests in RightStart.

Yup, that childhood right of passage from math class is missing.  No 2 minute, "do as many of these problems as you can" worksheets cross my childrens' desks.  However, there are practice sheets.  Practice sheets look awfully similar--50 questions to be done while the child is timed.

Wait a minute, didn't I just say no timed tests?  Yes, yes I did.  There is a crucial difference here.  Rather than imposing a time limit on the child, they are told to finish the entire sheet while I time them.  After they are done, we check for accuracy and then graph their time.  Doesn't seem like much difference does it?  The child is timed either way, it's just a matter of whether there is a time limit or an open ended timing.

There are four main problems with setting a time limit.  First, imagine you're at work and your boss gives you a task, virtually any task, to complete and says, "oh, by the way, I need this done in 2 minutes starting................NOW".  For many people, just imagining the scenario will raise your heart rate a bit.  Impose the same pressure on a elementary student and a lot of them are going to have some amount of anxiety.  Anxiety that will hinder their ability to store what they are studying in their long term memory.  In short, it defeats the purpose.  Second, a child who cannot finish the sheet in the time limit automatically feels like they've failed.  Especially if they have a lot of blank space left, all they see is what they can't do.   Third, those children who can't finish the sheet within the time limit are the last ones who should have their practice cut short.  You end up with the kids who can do all of the problems in the time limit doing 50 problems while the ones who are struggling only do 25.  And don't bother telling me the solution to this is to make them skip recess to do extra math lessons.  That completely ignores the fact that a child who is struggling is in no way going to benefit from having all of their mental breaks taking away.  Lastly, the time limit encourages kids to answer quickly when their focus really ought to be on accuracy.  In math (and many other things), speed doesn't mean diddly squat if you aren't doing it right.  Children need to be able to get the right answers first.  Speed will come with practice as they become more comfortable with the problems.  Timed tests and that amped up anxiety encourage children to rush through in an attempt to answer all of the questions.  After all, the focus has been on "you need to be able to get through all of these problems in the allotted time".  They will try to do that and they will rush.  You tell me...do you do better work when you rush through a task, or when you take a moment to really focus on what you're doing? 

While we do these same worksheets, RightStart suggests always letting the child finish the worksheet and simply timing how long it takes them to finish.  This does not bring up the "I can't even finish" issues, doesn't cut their practice short, and encourages accuracy before speed.  With more practice, the child naturally gets faster and all the while the correct answers are sticking in their memory.  After each worksheet, we plot the time (with a note of how many answers were correct) on a graph so the child can look back and see how they've improved (as well as practice plotting points on a graph).  The child is competing with themselves and building confidence as they see their own improvement rather than trying to beat an arbitrary time on the clock.   This method can still raise the same anxiety issues in some children and the curriculum suggests if that is the case to not time the child at all to begin with.  Instead, you can just graph how many they get right.  Let the child build confidence in their ability to get all or mostly all of the answer correct before introducing a timer.  There have also been times I've only timed "on the sly" if one of my girls seemed stressed out despite their ability to get the correct answers.  I graph the time on my own and only show them the graph after a few weeks to show them their improvement.

Many people will argue that these kids will have to take some form of timed test at some point in their future so they might as well get used to it now.  No.  No, no, no, no, no.  Let's focus on teaching children in such a way that they understand what they are doing and are so comfortable with the material that those standardized test time limits are ridiculously long to them.  If (while fighting the completely dysfunctional testing system we currently have) it is necessary to teach test taking skills--things like answering the easy problems first and using process of elimination on multiple choice questions, then do that.  Add in a 20-30 minute test taking class every day.  Leave it out of the classroom.  I've tutored people through SATs, ACTs and GREs, a shocking amount of success is based simply on the ability to take the test.   Rather than inundating kids with test prep all day long, let classroom time be classroom time and simply teach the subject.  Teach test taking skills (including how to handle a time limit) separately.

There are many other great things about RightStart aside from the timed test difference.  One of my favorites is the emphasis on understanding why things work the way they do rather than only being given algorithms to follow.  The children are also guided (with certain examples and dialogue with the teacher) through figuring these things out on their own rather than just being told about them.  This helps them truly understand math and takes advantage of the natural joy that comes with figuring out something new to help them enjoy math.  It also avoids the pitfalls that can often come in the later elementary and algebra years when there has been an emphasis on what to do rather than why to do it. 

If you'd like to read more about timed tests (complete with the research that shows how they affect children and their math skills), check out this article on Education Week.

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