The College Board and Calculators: Some Thoughts

What follows are some of my more personal thoughts about a project that I’ve worked on with several other teachers.  We wrote a letter to the College Board to express our hope that they will update their calculator policies to better reflect current technologies and the classroom practices that they make possible.  You can read and also sign the letter we’ve composed here:


In 1997, the College Board drew a line in the sand that was a good but temporary solution for a novel situation: they created a policy that embraced the advent of the graphing calculator.  At the time, it was a new tool that was rapidly changing the way that calculus and all of high-school mathematics was being taught.  At the same time, the College Board tried to distinguish between a graphing calculator and a full-fledged computer, believing one to be an appropriate and fair tool to be used on their tests and the other not.  The way they drew that defining line was the commonsense idea of banning devices with QWERTY keyboards.  At the time, this token gave them the distinction they were after.

Over the past fifteen years, mathematical technology has grown both more powerful and more ubiquitous.  One way that this has played out is that the divide between graphing calculator and computer has greatly narrowed.  Anyone who has seen the latest Texas Instruments device—the TI-Nspire CX CAS—would recognize it to be a souped-down computer with a ban-evading ABCDEF keyboard.  With the radical changes to technology in the past fifteen years—not to mention how these have begun to shape classroom practice—make it time for the College Board to revisit their calculator policies.

It’s most compelling feature? Permitted on the SAT and APs.

Bottom line: we should not be sharing inferior tools with our students because of an outdated policy.

My own connection to this story began about the time of the policy was put in place, when I was in high school.  It’s pretty wild to think that in that bygone era, I had a box that I could carry around with me that contained such powerful mathematical tools.  It was truly a marvel.  Not that I thought so much of it, of course.  After all, I never had the experience of learning much of high school mathematics without a graphing calculator.  I loved my      TI-89.  It could multiply out (x+1)^{8}  .  It could give exact answers like \frac{\sqrt{3}}{2}  .  I could explore all kinds of crazy functions by graphing them.  And I used it for years to great effect.

Still, when I lost my graphing calculator a few years ago—saddened though I was—I did not buy another one.  By that point, I had begun to carry it around more out of nostalgia than for use’s sake.

These days, when I need to do some arithmetic quickly, I’ll often type the problem into a Google search bar or into the calculator on my phone.  When I want to graph something, I use Grapher or Winplot or GeoGebra—all of which are on my laptop.  When I need to crunch some big computation, I use Wolfram Alpha or, more recently, Mathematica.

I never yearn for a graphing calculator.  I’m convinced that the tools that I use are more powerful, more accessible, and more useful than stand-alone graphing calculators.

Because of this, I want to share these awesome tools with my students.

When I give my students the opportunity to create awesome GeoGebra sketches like this one, there is a trade-off.  They aren’t getting as much practice using a TI-84 or what-have-you.  This year it’s not so much an issue for me, since just one of my students will take the AP Calculus exam.  But I know that it will be more of a consideration in future years, and I know that it already is and has been an issue for teachers around the country.

We live and teach in a world where there are more and more one-to-one laptop programs and where a significant minority of students walk around with cell phones that can run cheap apps that outstrip the capabilities of top-of-the-line graphing calculators.  In such situations, graphing calculators are at best redundant and at worst an impediment.

Texas Instruments—to pick an example at random—is in a hard place.  The new bells and whistles that they continue to add to their single-purpose, stand-alone devices are weak attempts at staying relevant.  At a math teaching conference over the summer, a TI representative was practically apologetic in pitching us the new version of the TI-Nspire.  And yet there is a real sense in which they are in an enviable position.  Even if their sales numbers are low for their newer models–because folks are slow to move to technologies that either seem like not much of an improvement or already surpassed by other products–they have a captive audience.  As long as they are suggested and required for the SATs and APs, TI can sell us 84s and 89s ad infinitum–that is, as long as the College Board calculator policy stands.

It seems to me that two forces are keeping the graphing calculator industry in business.  One is understandable inertia.  Many teachers and schools and districts have invested a lot of time, effort, and money into incorporating graphing calculators into their classrooms.  Teachers understand how to use TI-84s and 89s in their classrooms and do a great job of it.  That’s awesome.  I have no frustration about that.  New tools and new technologies take time to become the mainstream.  I’m not looking for any kind of bloody revolution.  May these calculators be used in great ways for years to come!

Inertia is natural and fine, but I cannot abide impediment.  That is what the College Board calculator policy is—an impediment.  It stands in the way of the education community even imagining real technological progress.  It’s keeping graphing calculators on indefinite life support–pull the standardized-test plug, and they would die a slow but natural death.  That is why I’m so passionate about raising this issue and working for change—not because I think that old technology needs to be replaced by new technology, but because the College Board policy is preventing us from collectively considering the full space of the mathematical experiences we can share with our students.

As educators, I feel like we too often feel beholden to the College Board and standardized tests and take them as monolithic givens.  We betray this in the way that we talk: “But they have to take the SATs,” and “What about the AP scores?”  But the College Board is just a human institution that can change over time, and we can help that change to happen.  In fact, we are best positioned to do so.

Issues about standardized tests range far beyond these questions about calculator policy.  One thing I like about the issue of calculator policy is that it’s circumscribed and a manageable size.  If some teachers can pull together in a unified voice to say that we believe that the College Board’s policy about technology needs updating–for the good of our students–then we may both achieve a small goal and feel the power of our collective say.

The College Board provides us and our students with a service.  They certify that our students can perform certain tasks and think in certain ways.  As such, they should cater to our needs, and not the other way around.  We should call the tune.

Please read the open letter.  If you find yourself nodding in agreement, then please consider signing it and sharing it with others:


2 responses to “The College Board and Calculators: Some Thoughts

  1. I like this a lot, Justin. I posted it to facebook:

    I found this on a friend’s blog. I have been part of the group he refers to, so I’m not exactly new to his ideas; but I think he makes a bunch of really good points about math education. Enjoy…
    …and happy Halloween.

    Little Reese’s cups for all!

  2. Pingback: Calculators and Testing II | CAS Musings

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