ACT’s calculator policy

I’ve been talking to folks about calculator programs, specifically whether or not you’re allowed to use them on the ACT. I had a student take the test recently at John Marshall High School here in Los Angeles. The test proctor manually deleted everything stored in the memory of every student’s calculator. That shouldn’t have happened, but I understand why it did. The problem is in the delicate phrasing of ACT’s calculator policy.

Here is a link to ACT’s most recent calculator policy.

The relevant line is this:

“The following types of calculators are permitted, but only after they are modified as noted: • Calculators that can hold programs or documents: Remove all documents and remove all programs that have computer algebra system functionality.”

Here’s my read on that.

-You can’t have any documents, i.e. you can’t bring a “cheat sheet” into the test via calculator.

-You can’t have any programs with CAS functionality.

That last part is the key. How do you define CAS functionality when ACT does not supply a clear definition? Their second-most-recent calculator policy spelled it out more clearly, and another reference point is the difference between the TI-Nspire (allowed on the test) and the TI-Nspire CAS (not allowed). CAS enables the calculator to do algebraic simplification and elaboration for you. So: you aren’t allowed to use a program that will do algebra (i.e. factor a polynomial) for you, but you can use a program with a single computational function. Any program that will simply calculate slope, y-intercept, distance, midpoint, the roots of a quadratic equation should be legal because they don’t do algebra. They just compute a single process.

That’s my interpretation, and while I feel pretty confident in it, I also think that ACT is oblique in how they present their rule—thus, others, like the zealous test proctor mentioned above, might interpret it differently. I personally would bring a copy of that updated calculator policy to the test with me, point to the phrase “programs that have computer algebra system functionality,” explain what that means, and insist that I get to keep the programs that are within the rules.

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