Calculator used to add up on STAAR test

The TEA will now allow students to use a calculator app on their devices for the STAAR test.

The TEA will now allow students to use a calculator app on their devices for the STAAR test.

Savannah Whitmer, Staff Reporter

Calculators are an important part of testing, but beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, they will become even more significant. According to a Texas Education Agency (TEA) change in testing policy, next year’s 8th graders will not only be required to be use calculators on STAAR testing, they will also be allowed to use calculator apps on electronic tablets.

The policy change comes from a recent increase in Algebra I curriculum. Smart phone use will still be prohibited, but districts will decide independently whether they will permit students to use calculator apps.

“Depending on the success of this pilot, especially as it relates to test security and any confirmed testing irregularities, I will make decisions about either continuing and possibly expanding the use of additional technologies or prohibiting their use moving forward,” Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in his letter to school districts.

Allowing a choice will be helpful for school districts with a tight budget. Traditional graphing calculators can cost more than $100, whereas calculator apps on tablets can be just $15.

“They get to use [calculator apps] on the Algebra I EOC exam, so it makes sense that they could use them on the STAAR testing as well,” Willow Springs Middle School Principal Kent Messer said. “They’re also using the same tools in the 8th grade Algebra classes, which are high school level courses, but they don’t use them as much right now in our 8th grade math classes. But they will, now that they’ve been approved.”

While most schools have not made a decision on what they will do, the issue of cheating is a major concern. Districts that choose to allow tablets are advised by the TEA to increase test monitoring.

“The problem from our end was the security risk it created,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said to the Houston Chronicle. “They’d have a camera. They’d have access to the internet. Initially we said no, but we had enough feedback that the commissioner said it would be worth it to try.”

If next year’s 8th graders are allowed to use tablets during STAAR math testing, the administration may increase test security, but is optimistic regarding student conduct.

“I think our students will handle it really well,” Messer said. “I think that we’ll just have to teach them through the process, how to handle these things appropriately and use them appropriately, but yes, I think they’ll be fine with it. You have to teach kids about ethics, about the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things, so if we do that I think our kids will make good decisions.”

High schools could also have the opportunity to use calculator apps on tablets for STAAR testing if the TEA decides that using tablets is successful after next year’s attempt. The school district’s administration would make this decision, but concerns about Internet and camera capabilities on tablets might prevent approval.

“In the past here we have provided handheld calculators for students,” assistant principal Bruce Coachman said. “We typically now are giving the Algebra I test online, and we have the capability of using programmatic calculators. So I don’t know whether we would do that or not, participate in using tablets. My first thought is that if we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t, because of the security issues involved.”

Though the success of STAAR math testing for next year’s 8th graders might be uncertain, Williams is expecting good results and looking forward to saving money for districts that choose the $15 app.

“While I recognize this revised policy will not address all concerns and may still require some districts to purchase additional technology, I am hopeful this policy will enable us to provide some flexibility,” he said in his letter.