Calculators and the Common Core: Change Afoot With New Exams

By Erik W. Robelen — August 27, 2013 2 min read
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In all the debate over the common core and the forthcoming assessments, one significant issue that’s received relatively little attention so far concerns the use of calculators. That may start to change, however, now that policies are emerging for the use of calculators on the forthcoming exams. And, as a lot of people tell me, the testing policies are sure to influence classroom use in today’s high-stakes testing environment.

In a new Education Week story, I examine the policies from the two state testing consortia—one in final form, the other still a draft. Although there are a few differences, the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia have a lot in common. In particular, both would prohibit most students from using any calculators for the grades 3-5 exams. In grades 6 and above, the policies have calculator “on” and “off” sections and permit the use of increasingly sophisticated “devices.” I say “devices” because both consortia plan to have students use embedded online calculators rather than hand-held ones.


In addition to the Education Week story, we’ve got a special multimedia package with additional information, including an online test of sorts for viewers: You’re asked to guess whether certain sample test items allow a calculator or not.

You’ll also find details about the PARCC and Smarter Balanced policies, as well as how they compare and contrast with those for some prominent national and international assessments. (For example, the NAEP in math at grade 4 does permit a calculator for some items.)

The approaches planned for PARCC and Smarter Balanced are sure to represent a change for most states, because current state-exam policies for the use of calculators are all over the map.

The common-core standards themselves offer some guidance on the use of calculators, as my story explains, especially in the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Here’s what the fifth practice standard has to say:

The focus on “appropriate use” of calculators and other tools is certainly a big concern for many math educators and others who fear that students sometimes use them as a crutch. Just the other day, I heard about a recently developed calculator that tries to deal with this issue. The QAMA calculator actually requires students to engage in some mental math before getting an answer. It will only show the correct answer if the student’s estimate is considered reasonable.

The PARCC calculator policy was approved in July 2012. For Smarter Balanced, the governing states are expected to agree on a final policy later this year.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.