Update to ACT Calculator Policy

In response to the growing proliferation and awareness of powerful programs and apps on calculators, the ACT has updated their calculator policy to explicitly prohibit Computer Algebra System (CAS) technology. For purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on the most popular calculator we recommend, the TI-84 Plus CE, although the general concepts likely apply to many calculators. Reader beware, this is a long post. To read my specific recommendations for test day, scroll down to the bottom!

To an extent, the update to the ACT calculator policy may have 0% impact on students with this calculator. The programs and apps that we tell students about are only relevant to a handful (i.e. 4 out of 60) questions, and are often workarounds for other solutions. For example, the PlySmlt2 app solves quadratic equations, but students can also employ 4 other ways (2 utilizing a different and definitely allowed feature of the calculator, 2 that don’t rely on the calculator at all) to find the solution, most of which they have been taught in school. At Mo Prep, if we address this app at all (which we wouldn’t if students are correctly solving the equations in an appropriate amount of time), we also highlight at least one or two of the other ways to solve the equation. We believe in setting up our students so that no matter what happens on test day (they forget which button to press, their calculator dies, etc.), they can get through the question successfully.

It is also unclear if the one or two apps in question on the TI-84 plus CE are even those that are not allowed. From the updated Calculator Policy available here, there is only a brief mention of the need to modify calculators to remove CAS capabilities. Many parents and students are unaware that their calculator does indeed have CAS capabilities, and it’s unclear how in depth the ACT proctors will be checking. In the FAQ available here on the website regarding CAS, under Question 9,

Q9: What kinds of mathematics-related programs ARE allowed?
A: The kinds of mathematics-related programs permitted for the ACT allow students to use the calculator capabilities to do the routine calculations yet require students to show their analysis skills by choosing the right operations and process. Mathematics-related programs are allowed if they are single-purpose – for example, finding numeric solutions to a quadratic equation. A student must choose the right program for the right purpose. This is much the same as choosing the right formula for the right purpose.

This to me is extremely unclear. Is PlySmlt2 single-purpose or is it multi-purpose? There are two options from the main screen once you enter the app, so it may be considered multi-purpose. And yet, the idea that you have to choose which one to use and know how to use it might be enough to keep it safe. The main option’s purpose is to find numeric solutions to a quadratic equation, so perhaps they are saying this app is allowed. It seems to have been written deliberately open-ended so as to encompass however they choose to implement the policy. I also believe a proctor who is not 100% familiar with the calculators (which is highly likely to be almost all of them – I’ve never had a math or science teacher proctor one of my ACT or SAT exams) themselves will potentially be misled, unless ACT spells out explicit test day instructions to check for particular apps. Furthermore, even if they did explicitly spell out how to wipe programs, this still may result in inconsistent implementation of policy and widespread test-day confiscation of calculators. I honestly don’t know how ACT is going to handle this appropriately. In an attempt to be fair to all test takers (and limit the CAS proliferation), it seems much more likely that this is going to result in either nothing at all different on test day (so only the very cautious type will be not using the apps on their own volition) or an inconsistent crackdown with inconsistent confiscations, and a lot of unhappy students.

All that being said – here’s what I would recommend for test day:

  1. Purchase a low cost backup calculator so that in the event of confiscation, at least your child has something! Recommendations: the TI-30X IIS for $13 on Amazon or the TI-36X Pro for $19 on Amazon. Both are heavily capable of many of the functions we teach at Mo Prep. The main thing you’re losing is the graphing ability, but you’ll be gaining the basic calculations if your other calculator is confiscated.
  2. Bring a printout of the Test Day Calculator policy that correctly lists which calculators are indeed prohibited. I have heard of reports of students being unfairly banned from using watches because the proctor didn’t know the rules. Bringing a copy of the policy may help ease that.
  3. Bring a copy of how to uninstall the apps for your particular calculator, so if you’re having to delete apps the morning of, you know how to do it.








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