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Texas school districts balk at state requirement for $100 calculator over $15 app

Texas school districts eager to invest in iPads and other mobile devices for their students say a new state rule requiring graphing calculators for eighth-grade test-takers could hold back their technology plans.

The calculators cost more than $100 a piece; a virtually identical application available for the devices runs about $15. But the state for now won’t allow schools to use the app in lieu of the calculator because of test security concerns.

“What it means for us is we won’t be able to purchase some technology that we desperately need for our kids to become proficient in 21st century skills,” said Frances McArthur, superintendent of the Lexington school district, about 50 mile northeast of Austin.

Ensuring each student has ready access to technology has become a major focus of educators who see the potential to personalize instruction and better engage students.

The Houston school district, for example, has equipped about 18,000 students at a quarter of its high schools with laptops and aims to cover all high school students by 2016, according to the Houston Chronicle.

But the state directive could slow similar efforts if districts must redirect dollars away from the “one-to-one” initiatives to supply the graphing calculators, which would be required for next year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

“It tells me they’re not ready to take a step forward,” Carl Hooker, director of instructional technology at the Eanes school district, said of the state.

The Texas Education Agency is exploring the app as an alternative to the calculators but the sticking point is test security, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, an agency spokeswoman. Current policy prohibits calculation devices that provide access to the Internet or have a camera.

“It’s the camera on the device that creates the security risk and that typically isn’t an application. This is an issue that we will be re-examining for future years,” Ratcliffe said.

Hooker said the devices could be locked so that only the calculator app could be used during the test and the camera and Internet access disabled.

But the state’s reluctance to accept that alternative solution sends a “strange message” to school districts that have already embraced technology, said Hooker, who launched an annual “learning festival” called iPadapalooza.

“I totally get the security issue. But if that could be worked out, it’s silly for school districts to use their resources to pay for something they already have on the device,” said Jennifer Bergland, director of governmental relations for the Texas Computer Education Association.

School districts have been told they need to provide a sufficient number of calculators so that each 8th-grader has one on test day as well as for classwork. There were 367,000 eighth-graders in Texas public schools last year.

But it’s not clear how many new calculators would be needed — and at what cost — to satisfy the state directive for eighth-grade math because some students will buy their own and districts already have a supply for algebra students.

In Lexington, a plan to spend about $10,000 on iPads for some of the district’s 1,000 students has been put on hold while school leaders work through this calculator issue.

McArthur, the Lexington superintendent, said any money spent on yesterday’s technology is a waste when districts need to be preparing students for the technology that lies ahead.

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