The VA DOE Loves Calculators

The VA DOE loves calculators, because arithmetic is hard and having calculators means teachers don’t have to teach arithmetic and the DOE doesn’t have to test for arithmetic fluency.

If you want to understand why I strongly support banning calculators on SOL exams, you need only look to this article by my colleague at Out in Left Field, More Educational Malpractice. The author notes the difference between the types and level of problems students typically saw in 3rd and 4th grade Math when she was child versus what they see now in a typical classroom.  The program she uses in her example is EveryDayMath, one of the most popular math programs in the US.  The approach EveryDayMath follows, which it’s proponents claim leads to deeper conceptual understanding, is similar to the approach followed in Math Investigations.

As the author notes, when she was a child it was common to be given 25 arithmetic problems that she had to solve each night, and the problems weren’t easy.  I suspect that most of our children would faint in shock if they were asked to solve 25 addition problems which required them to add three 5 or 6 digit numbers.   Most of our children get a handful of questions to solve, and they may solve 25 questions in a week.  Advocates of programs like Math Investigations and EveryDayMath argue that this is a good thing as children taught under their programs have deeper conceptual understanding of arithmetic because they aren’t forced to complete numerous problems with robotic precision.

The author claims that these lower expectations are the result poor instructional programs.

That may be the case, but I take it a step further.  These poor programs are because of calculators.

Our teachers teach to the Standards of Learning (SOLs).  That’s reality and it’s high time we stop claiming otherwise. The Virginia Dept. of Ed openly advocates giving students calculators as early as kindergarten.  They actually go further than advocating giving kids calculators, they require it.

The VA DOE argues that the calculators are used to facilitate instruction, not in place of it, and claim that encouraging use of calculators in classrooms doesn’t undermine instruction because the SOLs call for students to be fluent in arithmetic operations and test for that fluency on the SOL exams.

This is where that whole “do as we say, not as we do” thing comes into play.  See, the VA DOE says arithmetic computational fluency is tested on the SOL exams, so teachers have to teach arithmetic operations.  Reality is that the SOL exams include only a few problems that actually require arithmetic. For instance, third grade is the year the VA SOLs require mastery of multiplication and division facts, yet the 3rd grade Math SOL exam generally asks 1 or 2 multiplication fact computational problems.    How can the VA DOE claim that it tests for mastery of multiplication and division facts when the test generally only has 1 or 2 questions requiring recall of a math fact?

The net effect is that because we teach to the SOLs and the SOLs exams place little emphasis on computational fluency, our teachers spend little ensuring that our children can actually add, subtract, multiply, and divide fluently.  After all, the VA DOE has decided that it is more important for 3rd graders to be able to identify the commutative property than it is for them to be able to divide 54 by 9.

Why does the VA DOE place so little emphasis on computational fluency in the SOL exams?  Because of calculators.

The VA DOE firmly believes that computational fluency is irrelevant in this modern era of calculators. The NCTM agrees with them.  So do the folks who developed Math Investigations and EveryDayMath.

Our high school and college level mathematics professors report that fluency with basic arithmetic computation for whole numbers, fractions, and decimals is the one skill students need in order to succeed in high school or college level mathematics.  Industry experts note that  fluency with basic arithmetic, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing is necessary for many careers.

Notice that disconnect there?  Arithmetic computational fluency is needed for many careers and to complete college preparedness or college level courses, but we’re not providing instruction in the classroom that develops arithmetic computational fluency.  No wonder there’s been such a increase in students requiring remedial instruction in college and why so many employers have had to provide basic math instruction for their employees.

Of course we mere mortals can’t dictate methods and procedures to the VA DOE or the NCTM.  We’re not educators and don’t understand how children learn.  We may not be, but we do know what kids need to know to be successful in their careers or get into college and complete the course-work necessary to graduate and find careers.   And we know that what is not being taught in the classroom is adversely impacting our children.

Removing calculators from the SOL exams is the first step in forcing our schools to be accountable.  Will that fix everything?  Nope.  But it’s a start.  Removing calculators from the SOL exams means teachers will have to teach enough arithmetic that our kids can complete the exams.  That’s more than we have to teach now.  It may be a small step, but it’s still a step.

If you haven’t already sent a note to your state delegate and school board members asking them to support HB 469, you might want to do that ASAP.  The House of Delegates is in session now, so your support for this bill will be noted and might make sure this baby step actually happens.

Here are their email addresses.


Richard Black –
Charles Colgan –
Toddy Puller –
Richard Stuart –
George Barker –


Scott Lingamfelter –
Richard Anderson –
Luke Torian –
Bob Marshall –
Jackson Miller –
Dave Ramadan –
Tim Hugo –
Mark Dudenhefer –


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