Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


College of Science and Mathematics


Mathematical Sciences

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Kenneth C. Wolff

Committee Member

Anthony Piccolino

Committee Member

Andrew McDougall


This study investigated students’ use of, and access to, the calculator in high school mathematics courses and compared it to the accessibility of a calculator during college placement tests. In spring 1999, at the request of the College Board, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) conducted a survey on calculator use in the nation’s schools. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the schools surveyed indicated they either required or allowed calculators for part of their college preparatory mathematics sequence. Accompanying the increased role of calculators in mathematics learning and the use of technology in the classroom, significant changes were introduced into many mathematics examinations, including those in the College Board SAT Program. In its 1998 position statement NCTM elaborated that assessments must acknowledge students’ access to and use of calculators. This research investigated whether colleges were following suit, especially in regards to the use of calculators on their placement exams.

Surveys were sent to all New Jersey public high schools and completed voluntarily by Algebra I and Algebra II teachers. The surveys elicited information on the observed use of the calculator for arithmetic purposes. The topics addressed in the survey coincide with those in the New Jersey basic skills college placement tests. Teachers noted how often they observed students using the calculator for various types of basic computations. Different surveys were sent to College Placement Test coordinators at two-year and four-year public and private institutions in New Jersey. Those surveys requested information about the accessibility to calculators on placement exams and for statistics on the number of incoming freshmen required to take the exam and the number subsequently placed into remedial courses. Surveys responses indicate that in New Jersey, placement tests are usually given without access to a calculator.

The study documents that 44,453 entering freshmen at all public higher education institutions and eleven private colleges in New Jersey took the NJ College Basic Skills Placement Test in 1986. Only 15 percent demonstrated proficiency in elementary algebra. In 1995, 22 percent of entering freshmen at degree-granting institutions across the United States were enrolled in remedial courses in mathematics. According to the US Department of Education, in 2000, the number remained at twenty-two percent. Three years earlier, in 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 29 percent of all college freshman required remedial education at four-year colleges and at community colleges 41 percent of first year students required such support.

This study also reviewed research on the validity and reconciliation of high school exit exams and college placement tests. The results of a two-year study showed that of 31 state high school graduation exams analyzed, none of them tested many of the skills required for success in college. The results of studies that investigated the relationship between placement test scores and subsequent success in the assigned courses are also discussed. Because some placement tests may be misplacing a significant number of students, the need for a better method of placement is suggested.

This study also shows that the challenge of college level remediation is not a new problem and that the increase in enrollment and corresponding expenditure associated with remedial education does not necessarily correlate with an increase in the percentage of students requiring remediation. Rather, it is the tremendous increase in enrollment that has brought this issue to the forefront of educational reform.

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