Many teachers struggle with assessing their students' knowledge of the basic facts, also known as fact fluency. The teaching of the facts through strategies is (hopefully) standard practice now, so students have learned why the answers are correct, and not just memorizing facts. It's so much easier to remember eight-ten strategies as opposed to 100+ random facts. However, all too often we assess fact knowledge with the dreaded "mad minute," or some sort of timed drill.
So, what's wrong with the notion of timed tests? Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, wrote an excellent article for the NCTM's Teaching Children Mathematics journal (April 2014). I agree with her in that I believe that these tests are used with the very best of intentions, but research has shown that timed tests are one of the main causes of early onset math anxiety for students across the achievement range. This means that even students who may know their facts are stressed by the thought of these drill assessments. The reasons that I believe timed tests are still in use today are:
1. They are efficient in that the entire class can be assessed in a minute or less.
2. It's the way we were taught when we went to school, and hey, we learned the facts.
3. We don't know of any other way to do it.
Here are my arguments against these reasons:
1. The tests are not efficient (and not fair for sure!) if they do not give accurate results. Many students who know their facts may be so stressed over the thought of a timed test that they freeze up. We teach students the facts by using strategies, and then don't allow them time to use the strategies when we assess! Brutal.
2. There are many things that have changed since the time that we went to school. We have learned so much more about how the brain works, and teaching strategies have evolved, as our society has.
3. I know how to do it!!!!
The best and most authentic assessment to test fact fluency is 1:1. And it does not have to be time consuming at all. While your students are working on practicing their facts (worksheets, centres, games, etc) simply crouch beside one at a time and ask them 5 questions. (For example, in Grade 3: What's 4+4? 6+7? 9+1? 5+9? 8+5?) Keep track on a checklist, sticky note, or whatever system you use. This tells you whether or not the student knows the doubles facts, doubles plus one, one more than, making ten and using a known fact (if I know that 5+9=14, then I should be able to figure out that 8+5=13, which is one less than the previous fact). Do the same thing the next day with different facts. This can be done with subtraction, multiplication and division.
Another assessment that takes a little longer but is extremely valid is this: have about 12-15 flashcards of facts representing the strategies you have taught. Ask the student (one at a time) to spread out the flashcards and sort them according to the strategy they could use to solve the fact. Then ask them to name the strategies and then give the answer. Judge automaticity if they can come up with the answer in 3 seconds or less (don't set a timer :)) This assessment takes a little longer, but is a very clear measurement of which facts a students knows, as well as which strategies.
In Manitoba, we are required to assess mental math and estimation three times for the provincial report card. We have to remember that the "basic facts" are just one part of this section of the report card. Computing mentally (what is 45 + 88?) and estimation skills are to be included as well. More on this in the next blog.
Travelling Curriculum Support Teacher