, , ,

How to Choose the Right Calculator for High School

Just last week, I had multiple clients ask me which calculators they should purchase for the school year. We were working on preparing for the ACT and SAT in these situations and I know how having the right calculator can affect math scores. But students need a quality calculator for math and science classes at school as well.

The Short Answer

  1. While it is essential to have a working calculator for the SAT or ACT, it is not necessary to buy an expensive graphing model for these exams.
  2. Working knowledge of the calculator is far more important than the device’s capabilities. (Doesn’t matter what the calculator can do if you don’t know how to use it.)
  3. Because so many calculator models are appropriate for the SAT or ACT, it is more important to purchase a calculator you can use daily at school.

Let’s examine the factors you should consider when choosing the right calculator for high school and the SAT / ACT.

SAT / ACT Requirements

If finding a calculator for your standardized college admissions exams is your top priority, you will want to understand the policies of College Board (SAT) and ACT.Here are the calculator policies for the ACT and the SAT.

ACT has more restrictive policies. Two common models are prohibited:

  • TI-89
  • TI-Nspire CAS (some Nspire models are allowed)

The SAT policies are less restrictive and permit most common calculator models.

Working Knowledge

The key to success with any model is a student’s familiarity with the calculator’s functions.

Last year I purchased a used TI-Nspire from my empty-nester neighbor. One of her girls had used it in high school and it had been collecting dust ever since. It was a bargain at $10!!! And quite an upgrade from my current TI-36X which does not graph and has only a few features more than the calculator on my phone.

The problem with this new-to-me Nspire is I don’t know how to use it. I can barely turn it on and off and I have no idea how to graph or enter complex equations. It’s going to take me hours of YouTube tutorials to learn to effectively learn how to use this thing. (And, like most of my students, I have not taken any of my free time to learn about my new calculator.)

For this reason, I usually suggest students invest in whatever calculator model is commonly used/taught at school.My daughter has no problem with her TI-Nspire because from the time she entered Algebra, teachers had a class set of identical calculators and she learned how to use the features.

Ask your school’s math and science department what calculators they use and recommend. If a particular model is recommended, it is likely to be the one students will be most proficient using.

Other Considerations

Some students will have additional calculator needs or limitations.

Students taking Advanced Placement (AP) math or science courses will want to know the requirements for each exam.Check here. You might think that AP students would need a calculator with additional features, but in many cases, the advanced graphing models are not required. For example students taking any of the AP Physics tests can complete the work with a basic four function calculator.

Students taking International Baccalaureate (IB) exams will have to check with their math and science teachers to make sure their calculator meets IB standards.IB information is available here(but can only be fully accessed by approved IB programs.)

Another consideration comes from the parent in me— which calculator is best suited to your kid’s level of interest and responsibility?Graphing calculators typically cost $100 – $150. I’ve had friends who have purchased the top of the line model for their child only to have it lost within the month. Some students are better off starting with a $10 – $20 scientific calculator which you can purchase at Target or your local drugstore.

Many Good Options

A student’s ability to learn math or excel on the SAT or ACT is NOT dependent on his or her calculator.If your child isn’t ready for the responsibility of an expensive calculator or it isn’t in the budget right now, don’t worry.

The right calculator will be one a student can comfortably use.


If you’d like extra details to inform your decision, check out episode #215 of The College Prep Podcastwhere I discuss how to find the right calculator for high school. (Also available on iTunes and other popular podcast platforms.)

Changes to ACT Extended Time Take Effect with the September 2018 Exam

The ACT is changing the way it offers extended time for testers who have a diagnosed disability. These changes will take place with the September 2018 exam. If you have a student or know someone who needs extended time for their testing, you need to know about these changes.

What Is The New Policy?

The first thing to understand is the new policy will affect students who have national test date extended time. This is the most common testing accommodation of one and a half times time—commonly known as extra time.  Instead of being given an five and a half hour window and being told use it however they need, ACT is now going to give students exact times for each section:

  • English – 70 minutes (standard time 45 min.)
  • Math – 90 minutes (standard time 60 min.)
  • 15 minute break
  • Reading – 55 minutes (standard time 35 min.)
  • Science – 55 minutes (standard time 35 min.)
  • Optional Written Essay – 60 minutes (standard time 40 min.)

The previous policy did not force students to follow a rigid schedule for individual sections or breaks. Students were able to work the ACT in a self-paced way, taking more or less time than the new approach. Now everyone with extended time is going to have exactly one and a half times the time in each of these sections and will take breaks only at the scheduled break time.

Why Is ACT Extended Time Changing?


The first reason given by ACT is to increase fairness. I understand that it’s very important to protect the needs of students with diagnosed learning differences or psychological differences, but it’s also really important to protect those who don’t have extended time so that they aren’t put at a disadvantage.

Help Testers Pace Themselves

The other motive is to help extended time testers appropriately pace themselves. ACT found a lot of students with extended time weren’t using their time effectively. Some would finish without using any of the extra time their medical or psychological reports said they should have. Others failed to measure how much time to spend on each section and could make it to the last section of the test with only minutes left.  In other words, ACT is saying what was intended to be a benefit for students, extra time, was an added distraction.

Loss of Flexibility

As someone who coaches students on how to improve on the ACT I’m disappointed. My students clearly understood how much time to spend on each section so that they could allocate time as needed. For these students, the new policy reflects a loss of flexibility and an approach that treats all students with mental and physical differences as if they were the same.

Over the past twenty-five years I’ve worked with students who had extended time for a wide range of reasons: ADD/ADHD, severe arthritis, dyslexia, severe brain injury / concussions, insulin dependent diabetes, processing speed issues, narcolepsy, and many more. Each student had his or her own special need for extra time. The new policy does not recognize their differences.

Downsides to the New Policy

Long Periods with No Breaks

Setting aside the issue of treating all students’ needs the same, there are other downsides to the change. First, students are going to be working a long time without breaks. An extended time student is expected to come in, sit down, go through all of the regular administrative tasks like  bubbling in the answer document, focus intently for 70 minutes of English and 90 minutes of math, before the first break. These kids are sitting there for three solid hours, maybe longer, for before they’re allowed a 15 minute break!?? This is horrible news for students who have ADD / ADHD, for students who have any medical need that might require more frequent stretch breaks, bathroom breaks or even breaks to have a snack to replenish and monitor their blood sugar. This is not beneficial.

Then students will finish another two hours before they can get a brief break and work an additional hour on the essay. So what we’re essentially saying is we’re expecting kids who have all sorts of learning differences and psychological or physical differences to sit for five plus hours of an extended time exam with only one 15-minute break. And any student who needs more frequent breaks will have to lose time from a portion of the exam.

Lack of Flexibility

This is where I’m really sad to see that the ACT taking the same approach as the SAT because for years ACT provided an extended time alternative. Now students cannot choose a standardized admissions exam that allow them to exercise good judgment and allocate time according to his or her unique situation.

I’ve worked with a lot of extended time students, but in describing the unique time needs of different testers, I often describe Julia. I worked with Julia in private tutoring and she could do ACT English with barely any extra time needed. She was great in math probably didn’t need any extended time. I was beginning to wonder, “why do you have extended time?” until we

sat down to do the reading. Julia’s reading and processing was her true testing need. It took her 20-30 minutes to read and answer the 10 questions for a single passage. The ACT reading section has four passages and regular testers are asked to complete those 40 questions in 35 minutes.

Under the old extended time method Julia could take just a little bit of extra time in English and Math, and really focus on reading where she had a diagnosed need for extra time.  If she were taking the ACT in September she would only get the 55 minutes for reading, barely enough time to do 50% of the work, but she would be forced to sit for an extra 30 minutes in math where she did not need additional time.


You’ve probably determined I’m not in favor of the changes to extended time for the ACT. The good news is there are some alternatives so if you’ve got a student or you work with students who have a extended time and are going to be negatively impacted by this policy.

All the changes I’ve presented are for the national administration for extended time which is the most common accommodation. But other accommodates are available. If you have a student whose needs are not going to be met under these new policies, work with your school’s guidance counseling department to make a request for different accommodations.

ACT provides a variety of special accommodations including two or three times standard time, testing over multiple days, and even a reader to read test material aloud. If your student will not be able to successfully test with limited breaks or the 1.5 time limits, apply for special testing.

All testing accommodations should come from your school’s guidance counseling or exceptional education department. Your school may not know they can request anything other than the standard extra time, but with appropriate documentation of a mental or physical need, they can.  If you are in a homeschool setting, make sure you have your diagnostic materials together from your medical practitioners explaining why you need more than just one and a half times the regular time.


The new ACT extended time policy is not going to be a problem for many students, but some students are going to have to look at getting special accommodations going forward.

If you’re planning on taking the ACT in the fall of 2018 and you’ve had extended time approved in the past, make sure you understand these new changes. Know the test proctor will be cutting you off at the end of each section and telling you to move forward to the next one. You are no longer self pacing or taking your own breaks.

If you have any questions, go ahead and post them here in the comments or on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/collegeprepllc

Good luck to everybody taking the ACT or SAT this year!

, ,

Testing Accommodations for the ACT, SAT, PSAT, or AP exams

Recently I presented information on testing accommodations on a Facebook live recording. If you or someone you know has a student who needs or already received extra time or test modifications at school, you will want to learn more about getting appropriate accommodations on the ACT, SAT / PSAT or Advanced Placement exams.


Sometimes I don’t want to watch an entire video, so for those of you who want a quick summary, here are some of my notes.

I’m going to explain

  • who gets extended time & why
  • what you need to do to apply
  • the review process
  • questions you should consider before applying for accommodations
  • resources for further questions

Once approved, accommodations are good for a student’s entire time in high school. If you have an 8th, 9th, or 10th grader, now might be your best time to get this process started.

Before I jump into my 5 points, if you know someone who might need to know this information, please tag them and share this video—share with friends, parent groups, sports teams, homeschool groups, and educators. College admission is hard enough as it is, no need to take these important exams without appropriate accommodations.

Who gets extended time & why

Students who have proven mental or physical needs. Sometimes we think of the common needs for ADD / ADHD or anxiety, but there are many students who need some test accommodations:

  1. blind—braille
  2. arthritis—couldn’t bubble answers
  3. narcoleptic – extended time in case she dozed off for a few moments during the test.
  4. more severe brain / processing issues – up to 3X regular time with a reader
  5. insulin pump diabetics—extra time to monitor blood sugar, go to the bathroom, and have snacks as needed
  6. students with written expression issues may be allowed to use a computer to type essays

Goal: to level the playing field and provide each student with an appropriate environment to test.

Complaint: But won’t they get an advantage?

  1. Not really an advantage– ADD / ADHD extra time is a blessing and a curse.
  • Time & a half takes a four hour exam and makes it a SIX hour ordeal
  • 2x & 3x time can break the test up into multiple days—twice the stress
  1. I think we all agree it is better to have a hard time with the SAT or ACT and NOT have a traumatic brain injury, narcolepsy, etc.

College Board & ACT are very aware of the need for fairness—both on side of test taker with needs, but also on the side of not giving extra time to those who don’t need it.

What you need to do to apply

Applications for testing accommodations should originate from your school.


  • Faster—counselor, head of school, case manager, or testing coordinator can submit electronically, substantially reducing processing time
  • Reduces the chance of needing additional documentation—schools have a process
  • Less hassle—let the professionals do their jobs.

You can request on your own—homeschool—but if you are trying to go around your school to request accommodations, expect added scrutiny.

Here are the basic issues you should expect to address in any request

  1. What is the need? Is there a diagnosed disability?
  2. Does the need justify testing accommodations? (Not all conditions require testing accommodations. I might have a missing leg, but unless I can show how that justifies changes in my testing…)
  3. Does the student receive these accommodations at school? Is there an IEP or 504 currently in place with these accommodations listed?– This is a big point.
  4. Does the student currently USE the requested modifications at school?
  5. Documentation supporting the request—current, clear statement of diagnosis and how it presents a functional limitation, specific accommodations and why they are justified, professional qualifications of the evaluator, any “testing” (neuropsychological or psychoeducational) done to come to these conclusions

ACT has a nice summary of requirements:

  1. FAIR
  3. VALID — not result in an undue burden, as that term is used under the ADA, or fundamentally alter that which the test is designed to measure.

The Review Process

Standard review takes 6-8 weeks. It can be more at busy times of the year or if you are asked to submit additional supporting documentation.

In general, your request will walk through these steps:

  1. initiate with your school – follow up to make sure request has been submitted
  2. ACT / College Board receives your request and may ask for additional information
  3. Request is reviewed and decision is made
  4. Notification of approval (or not) and which accommodations
  5. If denied, why and an opportunity to appeal – Neighbor was denied by ACT 3-4 years ago because all of their documentation was outdated—from elementary school. Had to decide if it was worth it to appeal

Questions you should consider before applying for accommodations

  1. Is my child currently receiving accommodations? And are they helping?
  2. Will accommodations help or hurt? (used for good or evil)


EX: focus / attention issues – 6 hours may not be better than 4

  1. Will the student actually USE testing accommodations if granted?

potential client didn’t want to be seen as “different”

extended time for ACT—walking out earlier

  1. What other choices do we have?

AP exams—not many alternatives—take with or without extended time

College admission:



Test optional colleges or community colleges where SAT / ACT not required

How ACT & SAT administer extended time is different. You may get different accommodations from each.

You make the decisions. BUT sooner you start the process, the more options you have.

Resources for further questions

Please post questions on the College Prep Results Facebook page. I am happy to answer and will be honest when I can’t give you an answer. When I don’t know, I turn to the College Board or ACT student support offices. Over the years I have found them to be very helpful and professional. (Keep in mind they are charged with protecting issues of fairness and they do get a number of bogus requests, so if they question your request, don’t take it personally.)


College Board (SAT, PSAT, AP Exams)


844-255-7728 (toll free)






Thank you all for sticking with me through all of these details. I know it can seem like a lot—especially if this is new information. But it is so important that we get better educated as parents, mentors, and educators.

Unfortunately so many of our school counselors are overwhelmed—they have case loads of 500 – 1000 students and sometimes little details like ACT accommodations fall through the cracks—especially for our independent kids who are getting good grades. And a lot of our non-traditional schools or homeschool co-ops may not have someone with extensive experience (or any experience) in this area, so please help spread the word.

If you want more college planning or test prep information— sign up for my newsletter and take the free email course for parents.



, , , , ,

Necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors

Two weeks ago I was speaking with my daughter, a high school junior, and we were talking about college visits. She’s narrowing down her choices somewhat, but there are still a number of potential schools we have not visited.

I said, “We can see them over the summer.” Then I looked at the family calendar.

Between speech & debate tournaments, a mission trip, family vacation, a week at a psychology immersion camp, and a family reunion, we only had three weeks available. That’s three weeks to cover 6 schools across the state of Texas and 4 other colleges in Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

And that’s when I felt like the client instead of the professional.

I’ve seen so many families with good intentions (and plans) fall behind because they didn’t realize how little time they actually had for college visits, attempts at the SAT or ACT, or applications. Today’s article will outline some of the optional and necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors. If you have a freshman, take notes because you will need to start planning soon.



College Planning

We’ve all seen plenty of college planning timelines. I’ve written articles on the subject. But it only becomes real when it is written on the family calendar.

It is easy to think, “We can do that over the summer.” Or, “She / he will have time for that next year; college is so far off.” But once we are in our routines for the school year or summer, it is easy for time to slip away.

Here are the college planning activities I would encourage you to pencil in for your family:


For Current Juniors:

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has already finished with testing. Congratulations! But many students are still preparing and working towards a score goal. Here are the remaining test dates:


  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018
  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)


  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018
  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)

Plan which test(s) you can take. Remember to watch for conflicts with AP Exam weeks (May 7-18), prom, final exams, vacation, and fall activities.

The sooner you finish testing, the sooner you can devote your full attention to the next step: applications.

For Current Sophomores:

You have the luxury of planning ahead right now. Next year when will you have the most time and interest to prepare? Try to avoid competition season for sports and activities. Consider the time demands of future Advanced Placement (AP) classes. (AP exams are always the first two weeks of May.)

Students who complete Algebra II as sophomores will have enough content knowledge to take the ACT or SAT in the fall. Students who are currently taking geometry and will take Algebra II in the fall may want to consider

  • Taking the ACT which does not include higher level Algebra II concepts and / or
  • Waiting until the spring to take these exams

Other than math, most students will not learn anything in school that will help on the ACT or SAT. So you don’t need to wait for spring in order to test. Many of my clients are done with testing. Some finished back in September and October when they earned top scores on these exams as juniors. The key is finding the time that is right for you.

Here are the test dates for next school year, so you can start planning. Keep in mind many students will take their choice of exam 2-3 times.


  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018
  • December 8, 2018
  • February 9, 2019
  • April 13, 2019
  • June 8, 2019
  • July 13, 2019


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018
  • December 1, 2018
  • March 9, 2019
  • May 4, 2019
  • June 1, 2019


College Visits

It is not a requirement to visit every school on your list before you apply. But it is a good idea to visit a minimum of 3-5 colleges so you have a better idea of what different schools offer and how your interests may be met differently at specific schools.

There are so many variables when it comes to finding schools that are a good fit. I always say a college visit is like test driving a new car or trying on a new pair of shoes. You can read websites, compare rankings, talk to neighbors, and get the advice of experts. But when it comes to making a final decision, the only opinion or ranking that matters is yours.

I understand time and money are limiting factors in making college visits, but I also know the more informed you are, the better you can decide. Part of the evaluation process is where to apply, but the other part is where to attend. Notes made on trips during your junior year might save you a last-minute rushed visit in the spring of your senior year as you try to make your final selection.

Here has been our college visit approach:

  1. Summer before junior year—visit a variety of schools (big, small, urban, college town, etc.), take good notes, make a list of likes, don’t likes, and must haves.
  2. Junior year—continue adding possible colleges and removing some for not meeting criteria. (For example, my daughter likes liberal arts colleges, but has decided schools with fewer than 1500 students are just too small.)
  3. Junior year—visit more campuses. Take advantage of school holidays and breaks. Look for colleges you might be near as you take family trips.
  4. Summer before senior year—narrow your college list. I’m nervous when students have fewer than 5 schools on their lists and I know most students don’t have the time, energy (or money) to apply to more than 15. (They Dorsey list currently has 10 schools. That might increase or decrease by a couple between now and August.)
  5. Summer before senior year—make sure you have done official tours with a minimum of three of the colleges on your list. Visiting friends and relatives doesn’t count. You need the tour and information session from the admissions office to count it as a college visit.

As I found, it was easy to imaging we would have time to make all these college visits—until I started to pencil them in on my calendar. Most admissions offices let you schedule campus visit online, so you can do this at anytime.

Note: Many campuses are in a transition period right now, so don’t worry if you can’t schedule summer visits just yet. The national date to inform students of college admission in April 1. Seniors have until May 1 to inform the colleges of their decisions. Many schools are still focusing on this year’s seniors and will get summer visit schedules online soon.


Ideally students should be involved in meaningful activities throughout the year. But sometimes projects, community service, and hobbies get delayed during the school year. Summer is the ideal time to catch up.

This summer my daughter needs to finish her Girl Scout Gold Award and she has a goal of earning more service hours. She will also attend a week-long psychology institute at Wake Forest University. And we can’t forget all those hours working on speech & debate!

What are your summer plans? What else can you accomplish?

When students tell me they are just going to hang out for the summer, I remind them they will still have time for fun AND activities. And if you need a little convincing, take a look at some college applications and see how well you can fill in the “activities” section.


I will cover the topic of applications in greater depth in another article. What you need to plan for is some time, maybe a couple weeks, to draft a resume and start working on college essays. Summer is a great time to get started, but keep in mind, most colleges don’t open their online applications until August 1.


For those of us with juniors, that senior year will be here before we know it. It seems like high school just started and now the reality of college applications is here.

Take a little time to actually put testing, college visits, activities, and application work on your calendar, so you don’t accidently fall behind.