One day during my sophomore year in college, my calculus professor rushed into class, excitedly waving something that was truly astonishing. It was a hand-held calculator — one of the first that was sold commercially. Its abilities were limited to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but it could spit out numbers with up to eight decimal digits instantly. For my classmates and me, who relied on slide rules, paper-and-pencil, or a “lab” full of Burroughs adding machines (push a button for each digit or decimal point and pull a crank to get the answer) to do homework and lab reports, it was miraculous … assuming one could afford the sky-high price.
A millennium later, that professor’s calculator is a quaint relic of technology. Today’s calculators can all but change the course of mighty rivers, and they are indispensable accessories for anyone taking higher level math or science courses.
But I want to narrow the discussion to testing; specifically, the ACT, SAT and PSAT. The websites for all three state that calculators are recommended, but that they are not required in order to do the test problems. Given that a calculator in the hands of a skilled user can not only simplify, but significantly speed up the rate of problem-solving, the use of a calculator would seem to be a no-brainer.
There are, however, caveats. Not only are calculators not created equal, some of them are so UNequal that they are not even permitted to be used. This includes calculator apps on smartphones. Each of the tests named above has its own web page stating its calculator policies, and students and parents should consult this information well in advance of testing. The URLs follow. These links are current as of August, 2015.
Another thing that makes calculators unequal is that not all calculators perform the same calculation in the same way. For example, if you want to know the square root of 215, on some calculators you would enter “215” then press the square root key (which may require a co-key), while on other calculators you would first press the square root key, then enter the value “215.”
A second example: Some calculators use a single “–” key for subtraction and to precede negative numbers, while other calculators have separate keys for these purposes.
Which brings me to this recommendation: each student should have a personal calculator, know how it works, and be able to use it to perform the kinds of computations that are encountered when taking tests like the ACT, SAT and PSAT, as well as in their regular classes. This “comes with the territory” at Morris Tutoring.
by Ken Furtado, math/science tutor