Timed Math Tests & Math Anxiety: From One Generation to the Next


He slammed down his pencil and looked directly at me. I knew he looked directly at me because when he yelled, I looked up at him with tears in my eyes. I held his gaze for awhile, staring into his cheerful blue eyes behind white blonde wispy bangs, wishing I could be him. Just once. Just once, I wanted to finish first, to sit smugly and feel like I was the best.

I looked back at the math test in front of me, having lost precious seconds to my table mate’s outburst and subsequent wallowing in math hatred and self-pity. “I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be good enough,” I silently whispered, over and over, tears streaking the pencil marks on my paper.

And despite scoring A’s in advanced math classes up through college, I never felt good enough.

That’s why my heart broke for BigBrother a few weeks ago when he came home with tears in his eyes.

I missed some on my timed math test, Mommy. I know them all! I don’t know why I keep missing them!” He wiped tears from his eyes as I pulled him close.

I knew why. Our personalities are so similar — strikingly so, gratingly so — that I could imagine him tensing up, squeezing that pencil so hard as he felt the pressure to be perfect building up inside his gut, his heart, his whole being. I could feel how he must have felt as he thought, “But I know these answers! Why won’t they come out of my head and put themselves onto this paper?” I can feel that same disappointment as the teacher says, “Okay! Time’s up! Pass your papers in!

Never good enough. Never enough in general.

I never verbalized my problems with timed math tests to him, and instead chose to keep it positive. I worked with him on the facts again. He got them all right. Again. I printed out tests with double the number he is expected to finish in the time they are allotted, and he finished them all — correctly — before the time was up. We made fun games. We asked him random math facts at random times. We boosted him up, reminded him how smart he was, encouraged him to keep on trying even if he didn’t fill them all in or remember a math fact. I ranted on the Internet, full of frustration that I couldn’t make it better for him, that we still believe that “faster equals better” even though it doesn’t, that we still demand that our children learn in the exact same way as their peers, as their parents, as their grandparents. People argued back that if he didn’t become “fluent” (meaning fast) in his early math skills, he’d be doomed for future math failure and do things like drop out of school. And — wait for it — the fact that I didn’t recognize the importance and Be All and End All of the Timed Math Tests meant that I didn’t really care about his education. You know, despite the fact that I work with him daily and know how he learns and recognize that this particular tactic isn’t the best for him. Okay.

The truth is that my child is not alone in his math anxiety when it comes to timed math tests. In a really smart article by Jo Boaler entitled, “Timed Math Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety” in Education Week last year, the author makes a strong case with many great points against the timed math tests. The whole article is a must read, and this point is a sticking one for me:


Beyond the fear and anxiety, timed tests 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. The ideas students develop about math in elementary school are critical for their future in the subject.

I know that’s what tripped me up, what lead me to sit in advanced math classes — as I had the ability — thinking, “I can’t do this crap!” — because I had such fear. I hate that over two decades later nothing has changed and my oldest son, who learns so much like me, potentially faces the same fate of being able to do math but hating it or being afraid of it.

BUT — and oh, thank goodness for this but — BUT I am so thankful for his teacher this year.

I emailed her at the height of the tears and the math woe last week just to ask for any advice that she could possibly give. The practicing and making it fun and randomly tossed out problems weren’t working and I didn’t know what else to do. She responded, kindly, and told us to keep on keeping on, acknowledging BigBrother’s tendency to be too hard — oh so hard — on himself.

That week, he got all of the problems right on one of the numbers that has been tripping him up. We made a big deal about it — because it was!

The next day, a letter arrived in the mail. From his teacher. For him, not me. I wondered what it said, but left it for him to open when he got home from school that afternoon. I chose not to read it over his shoulder, but to watch his face as he read it. Slowly, a smile began to creep across his face, resulting in one of his Really Big Smiles. He handed it to me. “That was nice, Mommy. My teacher is nice.

Math anxiety
Text: Dear BB, Thank you for working so hard in class. I love watching you do your math because you think so hard! I love having you in our class this year. Love, Teacher

Nice doesn’t begin to describe it. I want to hug this lady.

We will continue to have problems, little things that trip us up, over the course of his schooling as he isn’t your typical learner. I will continue to have to work alongside him, to reassure him, to help him figure out how things work in his own ways, to help him get outside of the box of learning he is expected to sit in and accept, no questions asked. It pleases me to no end, however, that my son also has support from other people in his life — like his teacher.

Timed math tests may not be great for this kid, but a teacher who truly cares about him? Well, that’s great for any kid. I’ll take what I can get.


23 Replies to “Timed Math Tests & Math Anxiety: From One Generation to the Next”

  1. It is great to have a teacher that cares, recognizes when a kid is struggling, and knows the right kind of encouragement. She sounds great.

    As for seeing your own difficulties in your child, I so get that. My husband and I are extremely different and I always hopes that if we had kids, they would have my personality. Our daughter definitely does…. Just I forgot that she might get the good with the bad. :)

  2. You are EXACTLY the perfect mom for BB (& LB) to have. Good on you for refusing to give in to peer pressure and standing up for what you know your son needs. He’s lucky to have both a mom and a teacher who understand him!

  3. What a terrific teacher BB has. I’ve never heard of a teacher mailing a note to a child. I am sure that made quite an impression on him that the will remember for years to come.

    And what a terrific mama BB has. I so wish to be able to approach Tot’s issues, whatever they may be, in a similar manner when they come along.

  4. I don’t ever remember doing timed tests exactly like this. I know we were expected to be able to do multiplication tables in a certain amount of time but it was just us and the teacher, we weren’t competing against each other.

    I read an article (or a study?) once upon a time that talked about international math skills. The article said that the countries that do really well don’t do so well because their students do it fast but because their students don’t give up. When presented with a question they don’t know how to do, the students from countries that do well in math stuck with it and continued to try to figure it out. They didn’t give up, which is exactly what students from countries that didn’t rate as highly in math skills did. I frequently remind myself of this when I start to feel stuck.

    The point of my rambling is this — it’s not the ability to do something fast or easily that makes someone great at anything. It’s the ability to persevere when things are hard that makes people successful. You are teaching BB *those* skills and they will take him on a far better road than if this came easily to him.

    1. This was why I told you that you were the best (on the fly!) last night. Your comment reassured me that fast is not always best, that finishing and following through are what matter. (Though BB had a meltdown this morning as the test is today. Le sigh.)

  5. We have had timed math test struggles this year too. Sometimes weeks at a time stalled out on a particular number. He has almost completed all the numbers. We are so close!

    What a nice teacher BB has! I’m sure that letter will help him stay positive even in the years to come. Good job BB, keep up the good work!!!

  6. Wow, Thats what I call a dedicated teacher! You can tell from the fact she has not only hand written that note but written it so clearly for BB that she actually means what she has said!

    Thanks for sharing this Firemum, and Keep supporting those little men of yours just as you are cos at the moment you (and Firedad) are doing an awesome job!

    Peace to you


  7. You tell BB not to worry about timed tests. Truly. While I “mastered” multiplication and division facts fine, I struggled with the speed of my subtraction facts. I suppose I still do, to some degree. And surprise to all my elementary teachers, I have not ended up broken because of it. I have a PhD and teach college level statistics. Timed tests are ridiculous, pure and simple. As a math professor, I would rather have my students understand concepts deeply and be able to apply them than just be fast at barking back memorized numbers. Although I know, as a parent myself, I cared that my daughter was “keeping up” with the rest of her class in her math fact mastery. Parenting is tough like that! Conceptually we know it doesn’t matter, but we have an emotional need to achieve “like everyone else”, even if we all learn differently.

  8. I’ve struggled with math anxiety all of my life and think I have dyscalculia, too. Or at least I hope I do, because if I have a learning disorder I would feel less.. stupid. I didn’t finish college. I was six classes away from a degree, three of those are math classes. I took the same algebra 1 class FOUR TIMES and did not pass it, and got A’s in EVERY OTHER CLASS EVAR. Le sigh.

  9. We literally just had this conversation with K about reading. “I’m not fast at the reading tests!” And we were like, “So?” Apparently that’s a bad thing? I told him it didn’t matter, to mixed results. I hope it sticks one day.

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