Subtracting calculators from maths tests doesn’t add up

By Oliver Stacey

Wednesday 12 November 2014

There is considerable debate among teachers and policy makers about the appropriate role of calculators in primary school maths. Recent research at NFER looking at primary maths assessments challenges some of these conventionally held views on the impact of calculators in primary schools.

The arguments for and against their use in primary schools are all too familiar. Proponents say calculators are an invaluable tool in maths, that they allow pupils to spend less time on routine calculations and more time on interesting and challenging mathematical tasks such as problem solving. Detractors argue that over-use of calculators in primary school can lead pupils to rely on them to perform even the most basic calculations at the expense of their mental and written arithmetic.

This concern, coupled with international evidence indicating that primary school pupils in England had among the highest exposure to calculators in school, led to a decision to ban the use of calculators from the Key Stage 2 maths tests from this summer. The Education and Childcare Minister at the time, Elizabeth Truss, said: “By banning calculators in the maths tests, we will reduce the dependency on them in the classroom for the most basic sums.”

At last week’s AEA Europe conference, however, I presented findings from a recent NFER study that paint a somewhat different picture. The research looked at the effects of changing a popular maths assessment developed by NFER for Year 5 pupils from a calculator paper to a non-calculator paper. By re-standardising the test as a non-calculator paper with a large representative sample of Year 5 pupils, and comparing it to a sample of Year 5 pupils of equivalent ability who took the test two years ago with a calculator, we were able to compare:

  • the difficulty of the test as a whole
  • the difficulty of individual questions within the test, and how this changed when a calculator was not allowed.

The results were surprising. Rather than finding the test more difficult, pupils in the sample who took the test without a calculator achieved a slightly higher average score than those in the sample where a calculator was allowed. Furthermore, at the individual question level, there were only two questions (out of 30) in which pupils scored significantly lower when a calculator was not allowed.

This suggests that far from being completely dependent on calculators to answer basic questions, many pupils were able to successfully tackle multi-step calculations by selecting and using appropriate mental and written methods of arithmetic. So the view that pupils in primary school are overly dependent upon calculators seems largely unfounded. Indeed, given the role that calculator technology plays in everyday life, and the part that calculators play in the teaching, learning and assessment of maths at secondary school and beyond, the removal of the calculator paper in the Key Stage 2 maths tests may be a retrograde step.

Isn’t it time, then, to move the conversation on by asking more relevant questions about calculators, such as:

  • What types of tasks and activities in primary school maths should calculators be used for?
  • How can calculators be used to complement and reinforce mental and written methods of arithmetic in maths?

Engaging with questions of this nature will help to ensure that calculators are used appropriately in the teaching, learning and assessment of maths at primary school. It will also help to facilitate the development of key skills such as numerical problem solving among primary school pupils, and challenge the myth that the use of calculators is incompatible with mental and written arithmetic. Approaches such as these could lead to a primary maths assessment which does add up!