The question of using calculator software on state tests or tests that measure college readiness such as the ACT is becoming a debate in some states. 

Using Calculator Software on State Tests

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The Kentucky Department of Education has ordered a review of how students use advanced calculators on a statewide college-readiness test, citing concerns raised by experts that the devices could be artificially inflating scores.

At issue is the math portion of ACT’s COMPASS test, which is used as a placement test for high school seniors who have not met college-readiness benchmarks on the ACT test they take as juniors.

According to ACT rules, which are followed by the state, students are allowed to use certain calculators on the test, including ones that have been loaded with an algebra software program called Zoom Math. ACT forbids calculators with built-in algebra systems, but not those that have had such software added to them.

Stephen Newman, a math professor at Northern Kentucky University, said he is alarmed by the expanding use of Zoom Math, which allows students to plug in algebraic equations and get the correct answer without understanding how to do the math.

In late March, he and some colleagues conducted an experiment to measure the potential impact of Zoom Math on COMPASS test scores. They took the test 10 times, using calculators with Zoom Math to answer all equation problems. On any word problems, they simply chose the multiple choice “A” every time. In all 10 cases, they scored well above the cutoff.

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“Based on our experiment, about 55 percent of COMPASS problems can be done without thought using Zoom Math,” he said. “This has national implications and it could become a disaster if it continues.”

COMPASS assessments are taken by more than 2.2 million students across the U.S. annually in high schools and colleges, which use them for class placement. About 18,000 Kentucky high school students took the COMPASS test in the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Education Department.

ACT is standing firm by its corporate decision to allow use of the add-on software.

“Through ongoing research, ACT ensures that our test administration policies remain fair and consistently enforceable,” according to a statement from the Iowa-based company. “ACT math specialists continually review new calculator models, as well as algebraic systems and software, to determine their potential impact on test questions. Our current policies, which prohibit calculators with built-in algebra systems, remain in effect. We are confident that math test scores achieved under our current policies are valid and representative of student achievement.”

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