Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Professor Creates Early Math Assessment Test

by Becky St. Clair

Nadia Nosworthy, assistant professor of education and developmental psychology, recently completed her doctoral thesis, a project that yielded a math skills assessment test for children as young as five.

“The test can be used even with kindergarten students, and it already shows a promising predictability for future math performance,” explains Nosworthy. “Students who do well on this test tend to do better later on in math.”

With a background in elementary education, Nosworthy felt a strong desire to create a project that would benefit both students and teachers. She wanted to develop a tool that was user-friendly, efficient, low-cost and reliable. Right now there are not very many standardized tests for math in general, and those that are available tend to test higher level skills.

“You have to start with the basics,” says Nosworthy. “Math is an accumulative skill. For example, we know kids have to know letters and their sounds before they can comprehend words and sentences. Current math skills tests are basically asking kids to read sentences before we’ve taught them letters. You have to start from the beginning.”

Nosworthy developed the test alongside her colleague at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience. The test was created partially based on the idea that developing countries needed a way to administer a math skills test without a computer. Once completed, the project was piloted in Cambodia, India, Kenya, and The Gambia.  During the 2011–2012 school year the test was used in seven Canadian schools, with hopes of stretching that number to 30 this coming fall.

“Best case scenario, in two years we’ll have better indicators as to the effectiveness of this test in predicting future math achievement,” says Nosworthy. “More than likely, however, it will take several years, since the kids who have already taken the test in kindergarten need to continue to demonstrate their math skills before we can see if their initial test scores were able to accurately predict their later abilities.”

The two-minute test has standardized instructions and two sections. The first section focuses on digits and recognizing how many each number symbolizes, therefore testing a child’s ability to acknowledge which digits are bigger and which are smaller. The second section tests a child’s ability to estimate and compare quantities by showing them boxes of dots to compare and asking them to indicate which box contains a greater number of dots. The test is available for free online at www.numeracyscreener.org.

Math anxiety is a piece of the puzzle Nosworthy is very interested in adding to the project, in an effort to measure the relationship—if any—between how well students do with arithmetic and how well they do on the test.

“I’ve administered this test over 100 times and the response has always been positive,” she says. “They see it as a fun game, rather than a test. But when you pull out the equations and arithmetic that’s when some children start tensing up and lose interest.”

A study in the fall will begin working with teachers to help them learn more about how to intervene when they notice a student struggling in math.

“The way we educate teachers about math instruction has to change,” says Nosworthy. “When they are excited to teach something, the students get excited. It’s also true that if they are not excited to teach something, the students pick up on that and they are not excited to learn it. We do a disservice to students when this happens.”

Although the teachers who will be working with Nosworthy and Ansari in the fall are all within the Canadian system, plans are in the works to include U.S. teachers soon.

Nosworthy also stresses that kids who understand numbers and their relationships before kindergarten have a much better advantage than those who don’t.

“You don’t have to teach arithmetic to start working math into your child’s everyday language,” she says. “Ask them to hand you two apples, not ‘some.’ Help them count the cars along the road as you drive. Get them used to number language early.”

Recent research has shown that math and literacy work together and should be considered equally valuable.

“Math is just as important as reading,” says Nosworthy. “Perhaps we tend to believe that to be independent you have to read and write so we focus on language literacy more than math. But we have to start acknowledging that developing math skills is just as important as literacy skills. Numbers are important, too. And they can also be exciting.”



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