Historically, the College Board hasn’t always favored the use of calculators on the SAT. Even when graphic calculators were permitted, many questions demanded the kind of math conceptual understanding and problem solving skills that no Texas Instruments device, no matter how advanced, could provide. The last version of the SAT even had a full Math section where calculators were prohibited.
But new tests reflect new philosophies, and the digital SAT appears to embrace what it once shunned. Not only are calculators permitted on every math question, but the exam also currently includes a fully-functional Desmos graphing calculator. This calculator, as of the time of this writing, is robust and effective.
The design of SAT math questions seems to have changed as well. While previous iterations of the SAT appeared to be written to punish dependence on calculators, the digital test rewards it to a surprising degree. Some colleagues I respect estimate that 40% of SAT Math questions, even very difficult ones, can be easily solved using Desmos.
Two steps any students seeking their very best SAT scores should take are as follows:
1. Learn what questions Desmos works best on.
Not every math question should require the use of a calculator. Every test taker should be able to manage basic operations by hand. That said, Desmos makes certain topics much easier than they should be to solve:
–Systems of equations
–Linear and nonlinear equations
–Linear and nonlinear functions
If course, this calculator can help with any other question that requires the solution of a complex algebraic equation, but test takers usually have to build those equations first.
2. Learn how to use Desmos effectively.
One principle of test preparation is to always practice with whatever you are testing with. It’s only common sense to prep for the SAT using whatever calculator you’ll bring to the SAT. But even if you are a TI-84 or TI-nSpire ninja, you should still get to know the version of Desmos available on the SAT and PSAT.
Don’t just play around with Desmos: apply the calculator to all kinds of practice problems in timed and untimed trials to discover where it helps. Use Desmos on practice tests and compare its interface and functionality to the calculator you use in school. Look to your teachers, tutors, and friends for instruction. You can find great Desmos training online as well, starting with the free videos my friend Kyle of Tutorllini Test Prep shares on YouTube.
That said…not a single math question the SAT requires a calculator. Reliance on anything other than your own math understanding and problem solving ability can prove dangerous, especially if College Board decides to throttle the functionality of the embedded Desmos calculator or create problems requiring skills a calculator cannot provide. If you only approach your SAT with the same skills and tools the average test taker uses, your score will be no better than average.