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Topic: KY: orders review of use of calculator software on statewide tests
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,291
Registered: 12/3/04
KY: orders review of use of calculator software on statewide tests
Posted: Apr 13, 2014 7:42 PM
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From The Lexington Herald-Leader, Saturday, April 5, 2014. See
http://www.kentucky.com/2014/04/05/3181042/ky-orders-review-after-questions.html?sp=/99/164/
Our thanks to Michael S. Waters for bringing this piece to our
attention.
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Ky. orders review after questions raised about use of calculator
software on statewide tests

By Linda B. Blackford and Valarie Honeycutt Spears

The Kentucky Department of Education has ordered a review of how
students use advanced calculators on a statewide college-readiness
test, citing concerns raised by experts that the devices could be
artificially inflating scores.

At issue is the math portion of ACT's COMPASS test, which is used as
a placement test for high school seniors who have not met
college-readiness benchmarks on the ACT test they take as juniors.

According to ACT rules, which are followed by the state, students are
allowed to use certain calculators on the test, including ones that
have been loaded with an algebra software program called Zoom Math.
ACT forbids calculators with built-in algebra systems, but not those
that have had such software added to them.

Stephen Newman, a math professor at Northern Kentucky University,
said he is alarmed by the expanding use of Zoom Math, which allows
students to plug in algebraic equations and get the correct answer
without understanding how to do the math.
In late March, he and some colleagues conducted an experiment to
measure the potential impact of Zoom Math on COMPASS test scores.
They took the test 10 times, using calculators with Zoom Math to
answer all equation problems. On any word problems, they simply chose
the multiple choice "A" every time. In all 10 cases, they scored well
above the cutoff.

"Based on our experiment, about 55 percent of COMPASS problems can be
done without thought using Zoom Math," he said. "This has national
implications and it could become a disaster if it continues."

COMPASS assessments are taken by more than 2.2 million students
across the U.S. annually in high schools and colleges, which use them
for class placement. About 18,000 Kentucky high school students took
the COMPASS test in the 2012-13 school year, according to the state
Education Department.

ACT is standing firm by its corporate decision to allow use of the
add-on software.

"Through ongoing research, ACT ensures that our test administration
policies remain fair and consistently enforceable," according to a
statement from the Iowa-based company. "ACT math specialists
continually review new calculator models, as well as algebraic
systems and software, to determine their potential impact on test
questions. Our current policies, which prohibit calculators with
built-in algebra systems, remain in effect. We are confident that
math test scores achieved under our current policies are valid and
representative of student achievement."

Kentucky education officials aren't as confident. Ken Draut, director
of assessment for the Education Department, has ordered a review to
determine if Kentucky needs more stringent rules than those set by
ACT.

"We'll be getting together with ACT to discuss our findings no matter
what they are," Draut said. "At this point, I'm not worried because I
don't think it's widespread, but I want to nip this in the bud for
the future. I don't think it has had a big effect yet, but I am
worried about the future if this is a program that provides a score
we can't consider valid."

According to an Internet search, at least nine Kentucky school
districts have purchased Zoom Math. Fayette County Schools do not use
the program, but it is used by students on tests in Jefferson County,
although the school district would not say by how many schools.

Newman is part of a group of math educators who developed a similar
statewide assessment for the Kentucky Department of Education called
KYOTE; it is forbidden to use Zoom Math on that test. (Newman said he
has no financial interest in the KYOTE test.)

Zoom Math started as a tool to help special education students, said
Tammy Herrada, the software company's CEO. Although its software has
been around since 2006, Herrada said she heard of its use on ACT
tests only in the past year.

The company has never advocated the software as a testing aid, she said.

"It allows students to go over the things they've learned in the
past," she said. "We're not selling it to pass any ACT tests. We're
selling it to teach and benefit."

Some school officials said its use appears to be expanding around Kentucky.

Cindy Beals, the district assessment coordinator for Warren County
Schools, said the district's high school students have access to Zoom
Math, but she does not know to what extent they use it on the COMPASS
test.

"As long as they are allowed, then we allow our kids to use it," she said.

Tamela Porter, a guidance counselor at Bath County High School, said
students use Zoom Math on the ACT and COMPASS tests.

"We were always told that it was fine since KDE had approved it,"
Porter said. "We use it in daily instruction ... We felt like if we
are using it in instruction every day, we don't want to change that
once they go take the ACT."

Newman said he doesn't think Zoom Math would have as much benefit on
the regular ACT test because there are more analytical word problems.

Still, he would like to see other experts try his experiment and is
angry that ACT hasn't moved to ban the software.

"They're wrong," he said. "We cannot continue this fraud. People are
suspicious of gains in college readiness. It's our college readiness
program that is being threatened."

"Career and college readiness" benchmarks are part of a 2009 overhaul
of the state testing system in which ACT products were adopted at
nearly every grade level. In 2013, the percentage of students deemed
ready for college or a career jumped to 54.1 percent, up from 34
percent in 2010.

However, it's not clear what role, if any, Zoom Math might have had
in the 20-point jump, since that score includes results from COMPASS,
KYOTE, ACT and other career tests, such as ACT WorkKeys.

At least one other state has already banned use of Zoom Math on
statewide tests. Mississippi took that action in 2011 after its
education department concluded that Zoom Math "provided students with
an unfair advantage and compromised our ability to make specific
claims about student learning based on our assessment," said
spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle.

Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open
Testing, said new technology is constantly providing opportunities to
give some kids a leg up.

"As high stakes testing moves into the computer area, teachers need
to find ways to ensure that some students don't have tools that give
them an advantage on the exam," he said.

Donna Caldwell, the district assessment coordinator for Madison
County schools, said she heard of Zoom Math only a few weeks ago and
doesn't know if individual schools might be using the software on
tests.

But she said ACT and the Kentucky Department of Education need to
address the issue as the availability of similar technologies expands.

"There's got to be some effect," she said. "Does it make the scores
invalid? I don't know that you can say that. Do I think there's a
huge impact? No, but a policy has to be developed, and it has to
start with ACT."
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Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359Twitter: @lbblackford Valarie
Honeycutt-Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears
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