The Perils of Calculator Permission

As the College Board gears up to launch the revised SAT in March of 2016, one of the changes coming is a seemingly minor revision of the rules for the Math sections. This revision will change the 20 year old policy that has allowed the indiscriminate the use of calculators on math sections and may have a huge impact on test-takers. The current SAT has 3 scored math sections and in each section test-takers are allowed to use a calculator, or not, as they see fit. The current test makes no distinction (either implicit or explicit) among the math sections about the necessity or appropriateness of calculator usage. Well Interestingly, when the revised SAT launches it will have 2 scored math sections and in one of the two sections calculator use will be forbidden. While the College Board seems to be soft-selling this as if it will be no major change, I’m not certain at all that the impact of this change in procedure won’t have a deleterious impact. Having worked with teens in test preparation for more than 20 years, this distinction has me worried about unintended consequences. What immediately pops to mind are the following questions:

  • Will the inclusion of a “calculator permitted” section translate to this calculator dependent generation as “calculator necessary”?
  • Will the mention of calculator permitted cause additional stress for students who do not have a calculator or cannot afford a “good” calculator?
  • Is the college board assuming that students will all be made aware of the fine distinction between permitted and necessary prior to taking the exam?
  • Will this seemingly small change to the SAT hurt scores of the most vulnerable populations?

When one considers how much students rely on calculators and how students tend to perceive math, it’s not a far leap to conclude that the impact of branding one section as calculator disallowed will be that test-takers will conclude that the other section is calculator-necessary. While the use of permitted in the branding of the sections is probably intended to help prevent confusion, I’m not sure it accomplishes much.


Even more problematic than the possible misinterpretation is the fact that there is little to any discernible difference between the questions on the two sections and thus raises the question of why did they decided to make the change. Looking at the sample questions released for the revised SAT it seems that an overuse/over-reliance on the calculator might have a much greater impact on the revised test than it does on the current test. Take a look at this question to see what I mean.

Why is this in the calculator permitted section
Why is this in the calculator permitted section?


On this question, which is part of the “calculator permitted” section, students might waste precious seconds trying to figure out how to use their calculator on this question. Like many of the questions I found on the calculator permitted section of the revised SAT, it not only doesn’t require a calculator but in fact there is no way in which you can use the calculator to help. In an of itself that might not be a problem except for that fact that the inclusion of numbers and math terms suggests to students that in the calculator permitted section you’d have to do some calculating. To further illustrate this I went through all 30 sample calculator permitted questions just released by the College Board and here’s what I found:

[chartsninja chartid=”aad32df4c3cb4328b42928d44f854ada”]


When looking at this data, I’m stunned CB bother to identify this section as calculator permitted or to distinguish this section from the other section. Not only is the distinction between sections fairly minimal but there is almost no value in forbidding the calculator. In the both sections and on all questions test-takers will be required to make decisions on how to approach questions, what the question is testing, and what (if any) calculations are necessary to solve the question. It seems that under these circumstances that adding the worry about the implication of calculator permission seems not only unnecessary and meaningless but potentially actively harmful. What is the College Board trying to establish with this distinction? Check out this question from the calculator not permitted section and see if you can determine why this question couldn’t replace the question posted above in the calculator permitted section.


Why is this no calculator but the one above is calc?
Why is this no calculator but the one above is calc?


I also analyzed the calculator not permitted section with regards to how I would have used a calculator as I did above and the chart below shows the results. For both sections, many of the questions that fell into the “Can be used but not necessary” category were question on which you could have plugged in numbers to check equations rather than actually working out the equations on your own. Many of the questions that were categorized as “Helpful” were questions in which only a very advanced calculator (one which can graph equations, calculate in radians, etc) would have been helpful.

[chartsninja chartid=”0f984381cb594d28a918dc8e88b0bf0d”]


Finally, in trying to find distinctions between these two sections (and rationale for possibly hurting scores with the silly nomenclature) I decided to take a look at the types of answer choices presented in each section. Alas the logic employed by the test writers at College Board again escapes me, but here is my categorization of answer choices:


Calculator Permitted Calculator Not Permitted
# of questions % of questions # of questions % of questions
Numbers 13 43% 10 56%
Equations 11 37% 6 33%
Sentences 6 20% 2 11%
 Total Questions 30 18

So what’s the upshot of all of this? What will we see as the College Board launches its revised SAT (and can it really be called revised if its almost completely different) designed to “realign with schoolwork.” When was the last time a high school student wasn’t allowed a calculator for a math test? This new test seems like its shaping up to be, as College Board President David Coleman described the current SAT, “mysterious and filled with unproductive anxiety.”


Let’s hope that when 2016 rolls around they at least address the confusion of the calculator and just either allow it always or disallow it always.

For more on SAT calculators here are a couple of useful blogs:


7 thoughts on “The Perils of Calculator Permission”

  1. I’m as baffled as you are by the mix of questions in the “calculator permitted” section, but I think the prohibition of calculators on some of the tougher algebra questions makes sense when you remember that some calculators (not my trusty TI-83 Plus but definitely the TI-89) have a solve function that would make some of those otherwise challenging questions easy only for those who have access to and working knowledge of certain expensive technology.

    The current SAT doesn’t really have a lot of questions that hinge on basic equation solving (at least, not compared to what we’ve seen of the new test) so the difference in calculator capacities hasn’t mattered much up until now. If you take as a given that the powers that be have decided that the ability to solve equations and/or systems of equations without a calculator is a necessary component of College and Career Readiness™, then it starts to make sense to have a “calculator not permitted” section to dump those questions.

    1. Yeah that’s what I was trying to capture in the “helpful” categorization. I wonder if the benefit of those advanced function is enough to make it matter enough. I’d also really have liked to see them ban the TI-89 altogether if thats all they wanted was to stop those functions or ban all calculators because I it seems this test has made them even more unnecessary.

  2. I agree completely with the author’s main point. I have looked at the ‘redesigned’ SAT and wondered what the logic was for allowing the calculator on some problems but not on others. I honestly couldn’t figure it out. In my opinion, there were problems from both parts that were essentially the same except the numbers were different. In one section the calculator was allowed, but in the next, it wasn’t. I think the calculator should either be allowed on all parts of the exam or not at all. It’s just an unnecessary distraction to worry about when one can use his calculator. The calculator is a tool. The SAT should let the students determine how and when they use the tool. It always amazes me when students are forced to do a problem in a certain way. Let them decide how they want to answer.

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