Following Kentucky's lead, ACT bans calculators with algebra software on college-readiness test

lblackford@herald-leader.comMay 9, 2014 

Following Kentucky's lead, testing giant ACT has banned students nationwide from using calculators augmented with algebra software when taking one of its college-readiness tests.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said in an email Friday that ACT has not yet made a public announcement about the change, but has told its clients, including the Kentucky Department of Education, about the shift. When asked why ACT had changed course, Colby did not respond.

Last month, the Kentucky department banned the augmented calculators from being used on ACT's Compass test because officials concluded the software could be used to artificially inflate scores.

At the time, ACT said it was reviewing the matter but remained "confident that math test scores achieved under our current policies are valid and representative of student achievement."

The Compass test is used in Kentucky as a placement test for high school seniors who have not met college-readiness benchmarks on the ACT test they took as juniors. Compass assessments are taken by more than 2.2 million students in U.S. high schools and colleges annually. About 18,000 Kentucky high school students took the test in the 2012-13 school year, according to the state.

Previously, ACT allowed students to use certain calculators on the test, including ones that have been loaded with the algebra software program Zoom Math. ACT has always forbidden calculators with built-in algebra systems.

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 state's 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."

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.

Newman said Friday that ACT's decision will "level the playing field in mathematics testing, make it fairer for all, and provide a more realistic assessment of the mathematics students know."

The decision will also impact colleges and universities. For example, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System uses the Compass test as a placement tool for students, as do many of Kentucky's public universities.

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

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