More maths testing could be good for primary schoolchildren – if done in the right way

Recently published UK government plans proposed that by 2030, 90% of children leaving primary school in England should reach the expected standards in reading, writing and maths, compared with 65% in 2019.

As part of efforts to achieve this, the government is introducing more testing. In June 2022, year four pupils (aged eight to nine) must take a multiplication tables check. This means that, for mathematics, children will be tested four times during primary school.

The multiplication tables check joins a baseline assessment in numeracy as well as literacy, communication and language, introduced in 2021 for children aged four joining reception class. Children also take standardised Sats tests in year two (aged six to seven) and year six (aged 10 to 11).

Although test results can be informative, more testing will not necessarily help children who struggle. In fact, test situations induce anxiety, and preparing for high-stakes tests can turn classrooms into test-preparation factories. By the end of primary school, many children have sat through countless maths classes feeling anxious and having no clue what is going on. This is the problem that really needs to be addressed.

Struggles with maths

Research suggests that, in general, there are two main culprits when it comes to failure in maths. One is developmental dyscalculia – a specific learning disorder, which affects about one in 20 children. The other is maths anxiety, which is an even more common problem. According to a large-scale international study, about one in three adolescents get very nervous when they have to do maths.

Dyscalculia is a developmental disability that involves persistent, severe difficulties with learning and doing mathematics, which are present from a young age. These difficulties significantly interfere with academic or occupational performance, and even with daily activities. For example, a person with dyscalculia may struggle to read a clock, have problems estimating the time needed for different activities, or find measuring ingredients for cooking difficult.

Recently published UK government plans proposed that by 2030, 90% of children leaving primary school in England should reach the expected standards in reading, writing and maths, compared with 65% in 2019.

As part of efforts to achieve this, the government is introducing more testing. In June 2022, year four pupils (aged eight to nine) must take a multiplication tables check. This means that, for mathematics, children will be tested four times during primary school.

The multiplication tables check joins a baseline assessment in numeracy as well as literacy, communication and language, introduced in 2021 for children aged four joining reception class. Children also take standardised Sats tests in year two (aged six to seven) and year six (aged 10 to 11).

Although test results can be informative, more testing will not necessarily help children who struggle. In fact, test situations induce anxiety, and preparing for high-stakes tests can turn classrooms into test-preparation factories. By the end of primary school, many children have sat through countless maths classes feeling anxious and having no clue what is going on. This is the problem that really needs to be addressed.

Struggles with maths

Research suggests that, in general, there are two main culprits when it comes to failure in maths. One is developmental dyscalculia – a specific learning disorder, which affects about one in 20 children. The other is maths anxiety, which is an even more common problem. According to a large-scale international study, about one in three adolescents get very nervous when they have to do maths.

Dyscalculia is a developmental disability that involves persistent, severe difficulties with learning and doing mathematics, which are present from a young age. These difficulties significantly interfere with academic or occupational performance, and even with daily activities. For example, a person with dyscalculia may struggle to read a clock, have problems estimating the time needed for different activities, or find measuring ingredients for cooking difficult.