Timed Tests – Are they Helpful?

Before I get into how I really feel about timed tests, I must share my confessions. I started teaching 6th grade mathematics in the early 1990’s. My students did not know their multiplication facts. (I hear this comment still today from 3rd-12th grade teachers!) So I gave a timed multiplication test every Thursday. There were 34 problems on the test and each one was worth 3 points. So if you answered all of them correctly, you could earn a 102. The students would typically have anywhere from 2 to 3 minutes. I never told them how long I actually gave them, they were just told that they had 2 minutes. I did NOTHING between each Thursday to help my students develop an understanding of multiplication either. (It was not in my standards.) So week after week I had the same students scoring 102 and couldn’t wait for the next Thursday. I had another group of students scoring a 42 every week and they acted like they could have cared less about the test. Then there was the third group of students scoring between 78 and 90 each week. They walked into class each Thursday with sweaty hands and some even sick on their stomachs. And for the most part, no one moved out of the range of scores I just provided.

I began teaching in January that year and replaced a teacher who retired in December. She had the reputation of being a great disciplinarian. For you teachers reading this, you know what that means…she had all of the ‘hard to manage’ kids on her team. That may have been a good plan in the past, but placing a brand new teacher in the same position was not very kind. I was either writing students up or writing assignments for them while they were in In School Suspension (ISS). Our team kept getting notices from the ISS teacher stating that we weren’t sending enough to keep them busy. So if they had any ‘free’ time, the ISS teacher just assigned a page or two out of the dictionary for the students to copy. Ugh! Are you kidding me? So I decided if the students were going to copy something it would be something that would benefit me. : ) I began sending a sheet of written out multiplication facts and had my students copy that during their ‘free’ time.

It didn’t take long to discover that those students started scoring higher on their multiplication tests each Thursday. About that same time the parents of the ’42 group’ were calling and complaining. So I came up with an idea. For every complete set of multiplication facts a student turned in, he/she would earn up to 10 points to be added to their lowest multiplication test (a set consisted of the twos-twelves). No one could raise their score above a 100. That was reserved for those who correctly answered all 34 problems on the first try. Yes, scores began to rise dramatically.

I’ve read research that supports timed tests as long as you are doing something to help the students improve in between the tests. (I have an idea of the source of that information, but I’m afraid to put it here without being certain.) The scores should not ‘hurt’ the students’ grades and the student should be encouraged to better their score, not necessarily to score a 100. I’ve also read research that says if you hear, say, do and write something you are way more likely to remember it. So all I had done was add the ‘write’ component.

Although I experienced success with my methods at that time, I now question my motives. My main goal was for my students to learn their multiplication facts – and most of them did. But the students who had scores improve on the timed multiplication test did not improve their scores on anything else they completed for me. I was not teaching for understanding. I now realize that my motives were focused on short term goals and not what was best for the students in the long run.

Since my early years of teaching I’ve read more research – the kind that goes against timed test. http://joboaler.com/timed-tests-and-the-development-of-math-anxiety/ is a wonderful example of this and she even provides links to the research that supports her article. Timed tests can (and does in many cases) create or contribute to a hatred of mathematics. It took a while for this to sink in to my thick head because ‘I had seen the success in my own classroom’. Once I began thinking about the logic, my own beliefs started to change.

Timed ‘test’ does not have to exclusively mean a test; it could be the use of flashcards, or the class game ‘Around the World’. Consider the kids who already know their facts. Are they learning anything by using flash cards, playing “Around the World” or taking a timed test? This is just a waste of time for them.

Now consider the kids who simply do not know their facts. What will the timed tests, flash cards and playing ‘Around the World’ do for them? My guess is that they will act out, become angry, develop greater self helplessness in mathematics, and learn to ‘not care’. I’ve seen this happen. All of those outcomes are the only way many of those students know how to cope with disappointment, embarrassment, and frustration.

Next consider the kids who are middle of the road when it comes to knowing their facts. They know the basics but flounder when it comes to the 6, 7, 8’s. The ones they may know this week they don’t know next week and vice versa. They’re the ones who get all worked up over the timed tests, because right now they still care. During ‘Around the World’ they aren’t hearing the facts that are given by the other students, they are just sitting there praying for the teacher to call out an easy fact when it gets to them; or better yet, they’re praying for a fire drill or for class time to run out. Some of these students may learn more math facts as a result of the negative pressure, but others just begin to move into the frustrated, angry, depressed, “I don’t care anymore” category.

So let’s recap the scenario above regarding timed tests, flashcards, and ‘Around the World’. Who benefited? Only the few in the middle group who actually used the negative pressure to cause them to try harder. For everyone else it was a waste of time and more specifically even detrimental to many.

So am I saying that students should not learn their math facts? Of course not! I know that life mathematically is a whole lot easier if you know your addition and multiplication facts. But students should be learning their facts with understanding. For example, they can learn their facts through the use of Number Talks and Cognitively Guided Instruction.

Did I open a can of worms today?

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7 thoughts on “Timed Tests – Are they Helpful?

  1. Wow! What an eye opener. I used to use the “Mad Minutes” when I taught 2nd grade and I thought I was doing something great. All of my students who practiced their facts at home improved and moved up the levels. The one child who did not remained pretty much in the same place.

  2. Timed tests make no sense to me. Some students need extra time to arrive at the correct answers. Timed tests just add a level of frustration to those who have test anxiety.

  3. How do I get my point across to my daughters teacher that I have to deal with an almost crying little girl because she didn’t get the last two answers in the time limit. And we have to do this every week.

  4. I use time tests also. But teachers need to be careful on how they are administered. I have used them for practice only. I have a grandson who physically cannot write fast even though he knows his facts. He once asked me “why would they make you do a paper you can’t finish?” To take the test, we do the paper for the specific time and he is told how many correct out of how many he attempted rather than out of the 25 on the paper. He might get 19/19. This has eliminated his anxiety and hatred of timed tests. He is just practicing for a minute rather than trying to beat a clock that he can’t. He is a second grader. The scores are for him to see only. No big deal about them being recorded anywhere.

  5. From your blog to my children’s teachers’ ears! Two of my children have had the same teacher for second grade. The first one is a child who has struggled with math. Math concepts do not come easy to her. She got to the timed tests in 2nd grade and decided, at the ripe ole age of 7, that she is terrible at math and hates it. She spent the summer with a wonderful math tutor who almost helped her regain some confidence, and at least learn to tell time. This year, in sixth grade, she has a wonderful teacher who finally is explaining math in a way she understands, and she loves it. Now, this year also, her younger sister has the same teacher for second grade. This child has never had a hard time in math. She has always easily picked up math concepts, and was doing basic addition and subtraction facts in her head in preschool. Enter the timed tests. Every day. Her pencils broke. She missed the last problem. She completely missed a problem at the end of a line. And so on. By October, she had so much anxiety, she would come home sobbing about not passing math. I emailed the teacher, and she let her ease up on the tests, for about three weeks. Now we’re three quarters of the way through the year, the timed tests are again going full force, and my daughter both hates math and thinks she is terrible at it. At the beginning of the year, the teacher sent home a note explaining how important instant recall of math facts is, and I believed her. After seeing what it has done to my only two children who dealt with them, I am not convinced!

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