NKU math faculty spark changes to Kentucky and ACT calculator policy

For immediate release…
Thursday – May 15, 2014

An experiment conducted by three Northern Kentucky University faculty members has led to changes in Kentucky and ACT calculator policies for the ACT Compass math exam.

Their experiment focused on whether calculators equipped with the algebra software program Zoom Math artificially inflate scores on the math portion of the ACT Compass exam. The exam was taken by about 18,000 Kentucky public high school students to determine college readiness last year. Most Kentucky colleges and universities use the exam, which is taken by roughly 2.2 million students per year nationwide.

NKU math professors Steve Newman and Mike Waters and NKU Director of Learning Assistance Programs Diane Williams took the multiple-choice exam 10 times in March at the NKU testing center with a Zoom-Math-equipped calculator that at the time was permitted by ACT. Whenever possible, they entered the expression or equation in a problem into the calculator and got an answer. They selected this calculator answer if it matched one of the five possible answers given. Otherwise, they selected answer choice A. There was no mathematical knowledge or skill involved, only the ability to type expressions and equations into the calculator, read the answer, and determine whether that answer matched one of the five possible answer choices.

They obtained scores ranging from 49 to 65. Each of their 10 scores was well above the college readiness benchmark of 36 required for placement into a college-level math class at any public college or university in Kentucky. Each of these scores except the 49 would meet the benchmark of 50 for placement into college algebra at any public college or university in the state.

They sent these results to the KDE (Kentucky Department of Education). The KDE sent these results to ACT and ordered a review of ACT calculator policy permitting Zoom-Math-equipped calculators. The KDE used the NKU approach to confirm the results of the NKU experiment, with 100 percent of their 44 trials resulting in a college readiness score and 93 percent resulting in a college algebra readiness score.

KDE Commissioner Terry Holliday then banned, effective immediately, all Zoom-Math-equipped calculators on ACT Compass exams in Kentucky public high schools on April 29. Ten days later, ACT followed the KDE lead and banned Zoom-Math-equipped calculators on ACT Compass exams nationwide.

The Lexington Herald-Leader chronicled this process in great detail in the following series of articles:

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