Thursday, June 09, 2005

It's not a tumor.

Texas Instruments is replacing thousands of calculators issued to students in Virginia after a sixth-grader discovered that pressing a certain two keys converts decimals into fractions.

That would have given students an unfair advantage on Virginia's standardized tests, which require youngsters to know how to make such conversions with pencil and paper.

At the request of the state education department two years ago, Texas Instruments had disabled the decimal-to-fraction key and left it blank on calculators intended for middle school students.

But in January, Dakota Brown, a 12-year-old at Carver Middle School in suburban Richmond's Chesterfield County, figured out that by pressing two other keys on his state-approved TI-30 Xa SE VA, he could change decimals into fractions anyway...

-- CNN.com, "Student discovers calculator flaw"

There are so many things wrong with this... Let's start with the headline. It wasn't a "flaw," it was an undocumented feature. It is not a flaw for a device to be more useful than you expected.

As for the standardized tests, if you really want to evaluate mathematical aptitude, why are you allowing calculators at all? Are you teaching these kids how to do math, or how to operate a device? Because they'll always pick the easier option. Always.

Finally, it's discouraging-- though hardly surprising-- that instead of putting their own house in order, the schools are asking their corporate sponsor to fix the problem. Which they can't, really, but they'll make a half-assed show of it. And the next time a sixth grader finds out how to hack his calculator, he'll keep it on the down-low so The Man don't find out.

This is the same attitude and philosophy which gave us broken technologies like DVD region codes, the broadcast flag, and HDCP, and even more broken legislation (hello, DMCA). It's irrational, it's dangerous, and it does not make me happy.
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