For students taking the lower level ISEE and lower or middle level SSAT, math can be intimidating. Before students begin tackling geometry formulas and algebraic concepts, though, many have a far more important foundation to reinforce: basic arithmetic. A surprising number of students are counting on their fingers well into middle school. Finger-counting may be disguised by counting on the points of a digit (e.g. using the number “4” which conveniently has four points to count off) or by quickly counting off while calculating sums, but it is the same problem. Students who haven’t memorized addition and subtraction tables in second and third grade often miss their chance forever. By the time they reach middle school, they’re too busy to address this problem which will continue to stunt their progress. Poor mental math skills prevent students from moving quickly through calculations in order to focus on the deeper math concepts. And on tests such as the ISEE and SSAT where calculators are not permitted, slow calculations doom these students to very low math scores – even if they understand the material – because they don’t have time to complete the equations.

Fortunately, solving this problem is easy once students and their parents recognize it. Plan to set aside just ten minutes once or twice a day for math tables drills. Students can make their own flashcards using blank 3×5 cards or purchase simple decks. One very important concept to understand is that in order for students to do the equations fast, they must memorize them, not learn to quickly calculate. Memorization means looking at the numbers and the equation and recognizing the answer, rather than figuring it. Rote memorization has fallen out of favor in modern education, but for the foundations of knowledge, it still is essential. Like learning to think in a foreign language rather than translate word-for-word, memorizing math basics will allow students to create the mathematical equivalent of sentences, paragraphs and beyond.

Students can take timed quizzes and mark their progress on a chart, day by day, so they can see their improvement. A terrific tool for self-study drills is the Flashmaster handheld computer for mastering arithmetic, subtraction, multiplication and division tables. While not much to look at and a little pricey at $55 plus shipping, it is a surprisingly effective learning medium, with many options that guide the student to success. Students see their progress clearly in thirty-problem sets, earning a happy beep for each correct answer and a low beep for each error. At the end of the set, their score, based on 100%, is displayed and they start anew, encouraged to beat their last result.

Whatever method students use to learn their tables, it must be consistent and followed up with drills and practice in order to retain the memory by using it – and appreciate how much they’ve gained by their own efforts. Success in addition tables will encourage students to keep going, learning subtraction, multiplication and division tables next. Mastering these simple rote exercises can make all the difference in math achievement on the SSAT, ISEE and well beyond.