Times Tables Tribulation: 5 reasons why new summative times tables tests won't help pupils' progress

By James Clark 

Resident Research Project Manager, James Clark, discusses why standardised times tables tests at KS2 primary level will only serve to reinforce a fixed mindset and negatively impact pupil progress.

We've discussed the importance of embedding times tables knowledge in the earlier years of Primary School here, but recently, it has been announced that standardised times tables testing will, in fact, enter the curriculum in 2019 - for the first time since 1944.

When asked if I thought Year 6 pupils should sit tests on their times tables I immediately responded: of course! Fluency in all four operations, through memory of number facts and learnt strategies, is crucial to GCSE success and - of course - we want all our pupils to master these skills to the best of their ability.

I’ve been working on our assessment solution here at Third Space Learning. Part of this includes the need to ask pupils some questions on times table, in order to identify if it is an area any particular pupil needs support with.

This, however, is formative assessment. Which we all know informs the teacher (or tutor) what to teach and how to approach teaching it - as well as helping to diagnose misconceptions that may be developing within the learner’s mind. In both instances, timely feedback is the most important factor for improving development and cementing learning.

Formative or summative proposed tests?

Formative assessments for pupils on their times tables makes sense, and will already be a key part of every teacher's practice across the country. However, it instead sounds like the government are proposing a summative assessment - a test to measure how much has been learnt after a period of learning, typically measured against a benchmark or standard.

This will not work. And here's why.

1. No feedback - no progress

A national test, no doubt standardised, will not inform the child in a timely enough manner to provide any useful feedback to improve learning.

Pupil Tracking Sheet Year 1 to Year 6

10 Key Maths objectives to track per year group
2. Testing school performance - not pupil progress 

Likely these tests will contribute to another SATs score, used as an indication of Primary School performance (what % of pupils got a higher mark than the average on one particular test). Also likely it’ll be one of the few bits of information that goes with a child from primary school to secondary school.

3. Just a distraction

Like other summative tests, times tables testing will only serve as a distraction from the actual job of the teacher. Teachers will have to take time away from teaching to appease national requirements that are more to do with statistical purposes and political ends than actual pupil learning.

4. Ingraining a fixed mindset

From the perspective of a pupil who is already aware they are behind in Maths, if they do not perform well in yet another standardised test this will only reinforce a fixed mindset. Remember, as teachers we are always encouraged to produce a growth mindset in our pupils. To a child who already feels they are not capable of achieving in Maths a further formalised test will only galvanize a fixed mind set. To a pupil who feels they can achieve - and do achieve well in the test - the effect will be exactly the same, a fixed mindset on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is the opposite of effective teaching for wider learning.

5. Ranking schools, ranking funding

Linked to point two, in using yet another standardised test to - let's be honest - examine schools apparant performance, we will inevitably see schools be ranked by that performance. This will quite possibly determine future funding decisions which will affect all pupils within it. 

Breaking down the barriers to learning...

It is obvious from speaking to adults since I switched from Engineering to Maths teaching, that often a single experience or series of events only serve to confirm to individuals that they 'just aren’t a Maths person.' As any teacher knows this can be a huge psychological barrier to learning.

So here’s the intelligent question ministers should be asking themselves: is another public and national test likely to empower those that feel they are not achieving, or is it more likely to act as another nail in the coffin for an already fragile mindset? If - as I suspect - it’s the latter, then what exactly is the point?

So whilst highlighting the importance of basic numeracy skills at an early age is hugely important. A national test dedicated to times tables is much more likely to reinforce existing fixed mindsets, rather than promote intellectual growth. Also it will probably force teachers into rote learning techniques that may help very locally, but will take time away from post-Victorian teaching styles that better prepare our pupils to be the confident innovators and creative problem solvers that our industries are currently unable to recruit.

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