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

Education Week, July 3, 2012.

Jo Boaler, Professor, Mathematics Education. Stanford University, CA.
Mathematics education is in crisis – a third of all school children end up in remedial math courses and levels of interest are at an all time low (Boaler, 2008). Part of the reason for this is that schools in the US have been moving down a fast moving track over recent years, where the purpose of math is simply to rank children and their schools. Math has become a performance subject and children of all ages are more likely to tell you that it is about whether they get it or not, than they are to tell you about the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest. The damage starts early in the US with young children being made to take timed math tests from the age of five. This is despite research that has shown that timed tests are the direct cause of the early onset of math anxiety.
Timed math tests have been popular in the US for years. Unfortunately some of the wording in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) may mean they are used with even greater frequency. From grade 2 upwards the CCSS give math “fluency” as a goal and many people erroneously equate fluency with timed testing. It seems critical that we stop at this juncture and review the evidence that is emerging on the impact of timed testing, and the ways that it transform children’s brains, leading them into an inevitable path of math anxiety and low math achievement.
The personal and educational consequences of math anxiety are great, including fear and worry about math, low achievement and math avoidance. Math anxiety impacts a large proportion of the US – estimated to be about 50% of the population and it affects more women than men. Researchers know that math anxiety is not related to overall intelligence (Aschcraft, 2002) and that math anxiety starts early – it is documented in children as young as five – and that early anxiety snowballs, leading to math difficulties and avoidance that accentuate as children get older.
Until recently the causes of math anxiety and the ways it impacts the brain have not been precisely known, but the introduction of brain imaging research has given us new and important evidence. Beilock (2011), for example, has found that when children are put under math stress, they are unable to successfully execute math problems because the stress impedes their working memory – the area of the brain where we hold math facts. Beilock found that stressful math situations cause worries that compete for the working memory, causing it to be blocked. She also found that math anxiety impacts those with high rather than low amounts of working memory – exactly those students who have the potential to take mathematics to high levels.
More recent research conducted with children in 1st and 2nd grade found that levels of math anxiety did not correlate with grade level, reading level, or parental income and again that math anxiety did not impact the achievement of all students, but only those with higher levels of working memory (Ramirez, Gunderson, Levine, & Beilock, in press). For the most capable students, stress impeded the functioning of their working memory and reduced their achievement. Other research using brain scans with young children showed that math anxiety actually changes the structure and workings of the brain (Young, Wu & Menon, 2012).
When I moved to the US from Europe a few years ago, I was shocked to learn that many school districts give children as young as first grade 50 math fact questions to complete in 3 minutes. For many children it is not an exaggeration to describe these tests as torturous. When teachers of 2nd and 4th graders in one elementary school I visited asked students to write down how the test made them feel, responses showed that the test prompted anxiety in one-quarter of the students in each class, and that anxiety was not correlated with test success. Indeed some of the students with the highest levels of success were those who indicated the most severe anxiety, with comments such as “I feel nervous, I know my facts but is just scares me”. It should not be surprising that the highest achievers were displaying the most anxiety – neuroscience tells us that it is these students who experience the greatest amounts of cognitive dysfunction. But anxiety affects students from across the achievement spectrum. The second graders described the tests as making them feel “upset” “unhappy” and that “they are terribul at math”.
Timed tests have been given to young children in US school districts with the best intentions and negative consequences, for many years. The brain research that has emerged in recent years could be the impetus for changing this, but the inclusion of the word “fluency” in the Common Core may mean that they continue to be used and even included as part of the new Common Core assessments. There are many good teaching strategies for encouraging fluency in math, but the ones that are effective are those that develop ‘number sense’ at the same time – the flexible use and understanding of numbers and quantities (Seeley, 2009; Boaler, 2008) and that do so without instantiating math fear and anxiety. ‘Number talks’ (Parrish, 2010) and similar strategies, that involve students solving and discussing number problems are ideal for the development of fluency with understanding.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of timed testing is the fear and anxiety they induce - teachers told me that their children cried when they had to take them. But they also convey strong and negative messages about math, suggesting that math ability is measured by working quickly, rather than thinking deeply and carefully – the hallmark of high-level mathematical thinking. They also tell students that math is a performance subject, the main purpose of which is to order and categorize students, rather than an interesting and accessible subject that could empower them to solve problems in their lives (Boaler, 2008).
The ideas students develop about math in elementary school are critical for their future in the subject, and the continued use of timed testing in classrooms and in high stakes assessments is having a clear and damaging effect, not only on students’ perceptions and levels of anxiety but on their brain development. Policies in education rarely draw from research knowledge but this particular policy – of giving young children timed math tests is one of the clearest ways schools damage children and we now have evidence of the way the damage is produced.
The US faces a severe problem in education with widespread mathematics underachievement and insufficient numbers of students available to continue mathematical, scientific and technological innovations. Educators and policy makers share an important goal – to create math classrooms where students are excited to learn math, rather than being stressed and worried about their performance under pressure. There is no disagreement about the goal, but policies that require the testing of young children under timed conditions may be inadvertently achieving the opposite of this goal. Assessments for the Common Core could break or perpetuate this cycle of math damage, let's hope they do the former.
Ashcraft, M. (2002). Math Anxiety: Personal, Educational and Cognitive Consequences. Current
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Beilock, S. (2011). Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When You
Have To. Simon & Schuster, Free Press: New York.
Boaler, J (2008). What’s Math Got To Do With It? Helping Children Learn to Love Their Least
Favorite Subject – and Why It’s Important for America. Penguin: New York.
Parrish, S (2010). Number Talks: Helping Children Mental Math and Computation Strategies. Math
Solutions: Sausalito.
Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (in press). Math anxiety, working
Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School. Journal of Cognition and Development. Seeley, Cathy (2009). Faster isn't Smarter (2009). Sausalito, CA:Math Solutions Publications
Young, C.B., Wu, S.S. & Menon, V. (2012). The Neurodevelopmental Basis of Math Anxiety. Psychological Science Online First. March 20, 2012. doi:10.1177/0956797611429134