We use assessments just about every day. Sometimes we want to understand what students know to calibrate instruction and design learning experiences. At other times we want to track learning progress and determine whether students have met learning goals and expectations.
Assessments come in many forms. We use demonstrations, exhibitions, and performances to build and solidify learning while also providing comprehensive and nuanced pictures of what students have learned. Of course, not all assessment strategies are of equal value. Information gained from traditional quizzes featuring closed-ended questions and multiple-choice options can give us some insights into learning progress with little time investment, but they do little to reinforce and solidify a student’s learning.
It is important that we be thoughtful about the assessment strategies we choose. If we are to commit time for students to engage in assessment and we want to be able to depend on the results generated by the assessment, we need to be sure that the activity conveys what students have learned and how they are progressing.
Unfortunately, there is at least one common assessment strategy that too often falls short of providing the information we may be seeking and can work against learning for many students. That assessment strategy is timed tests.
While intended to assess automaticity of learning, research has shown that timed tests, especially in math, can generate levels of anxiety in students significant enough to impede their learning and diminish their ability to show what they know. Consequently, they may be neither accurate nor helpful.
Multiple research studies have demonstrated that high levels of anxiety can interfere with working memory, a key element in successful learning. Working memory is where we initially store information like math facts. Further, working memory is part of the sequence of processes that lead to long-term retention of information. When working memory is diminished, less information becomes available for transfer into long-term memory and learning suffers.
Studies have also shown that the impact of pressure generated by timed testing appears to be greatest with young children, the age group to whom timed tests are most often administered. Unfortunately, math and other learning related anxieties once developed often stay with students and even grow throughout their learning careers and lives.
We might think that the impact of anxiety is greatest for our struggling students. However, researchers have also documented that the highest levels of anxiety are often found among the highest achievers.
We might assume that being able to perform quickly equates to learning deeply. However, research does not support this connection. Being able to perform a task quickly may reveal memorization and reflexivity, but it does not necessarily represent understanding and flexibility, two key learning contributors to success in life and work.
Some people argue that timed tests are a good way to measure fluency. Yet, fluency implies more than how quickly a student can perform. High levels of fluency include being able to think deeply about a topic or skill and developing a command that supports application of learning. Memorization and speed are at best partial pictures of fluency.
The time has come for us to rethink the role and use of timed testing, especially for our youngest learners. In pursuit of understanding what students know, timed tests risk interfering with what they are learning.