Ky. bans use of Algebra program on statewide test after finding potential for score inflation

lblackford@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2014 

Calculators augmented with algebra software may no longer be used by Kentucky high school students as they take a statewide college-readiness test, the Kentucky Department of Education ordered Tuesday.

The decision by state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday came after officials concluded the software could be used to artificially inflate 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 took 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 the algebra software program Zoom Math. ACT forbids calculators with built-in algebra systems, but not those that have had such software added to them.

Northern Kentucky University math professor Stephen Newman raised concerns about the software after he conducted an experiment to determine the potential effect of Zoom Math on test scores. In late March, he and some colleagues 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 performed well above the minimum required score.

As the Herald-Leader reported on Newman's concerns in early April, Holliday ordered a review of the software's impact on test scores. The department's assessment division, with the help of several high school and middle school math teachers, conducted experiments similar to Newman's.

"By using Zoom Math on just the algebraic content questions and randomly guessing on other questions, a student could score high enough to become college ready in mathematics," according to the KDE report. "It is the Kentucky Department of Education's professional opinion, based on the trials cited above, that a student, who is well versed in the operation of Zoom Math but is deficient in mathematics algebraic content knowledge and skills, could receive a college readiness score by using Zoom Math on the Compass test."

On Tuesday, Holliday sent a memo to all district superintendents banning the use of calculators that are augmented with computer software. It's not clear how many Kentucky students who take the Compass test use Zoom Math, although several districts have bought the program and use it during classroom instruction.

ACT is still reviewing the matter, spokesman Edward Colby said Wednesday.

"We conduct ongoing research on the impact of specific calculators and calculator software on our assessment results, and our policies are determined based upon that research," Colby said.

Newman said he was "pleased and gratified" by Holliday's "decisive action."

In his memo, Holliday said he was banning the software immediately because it "may not accurately measure students' mathematical abilities and provides an unfair technical advantage to students by artificially inflating their scores."

That decision might affect higher education as well. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System uses the Compass test as a placement tool for students, and the other public universities also use Compass scores to determine college math readiness.

Sue Cain, a senior policy adviser at the Council on Postsecondary Education, said higher-education officials will discuss the issue at a meeting in May.

"Personally, I'm in total agreement with KDE for not using these applications," she said.

Zoom Math started as a tool to help special education students, said Tammy Herrada, the software company's CEO. Although its software has been around since 2006, Herrada said she heard of its use on ACT tests only in the past year.

The company has never advocated the software as a testing aid, she said.

"It allows students to go over the things they've learned in the past," she said. "We're not selling it to pass any ACT tests. We're selling it to teach and benefit."

Some school officials said in April that its use appears to be expanding around Kentucky.

Tamela Porter, a guidance counselor at Bath County High School, told the Herald-Leader that students use Zoom Math on the ACT and Compass tests.

"We were always told that it was fine since KDE had approved it," Porter said. "We use it in daily instruction. ... We felt like if we are using it in instruction every day, we don't want to change that once they go take the ACT."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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