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Pricey Graphing Calculators Could Be Headed for Extinction

Major testing companies are adopting embedded web calculators instead of freestanding devices

(Gene Wilburn / Flickr CC)
smithsonian.com

If you’ve ever taken a math class, you’ve probably experienced the tyranny of the expensive graphing calculators—necessary tools to plot graphs and compute complex equations. But the bulky calculators’ time as a ubiquitous math class accessory could be coming to an end. As USA Today’s Greg Toppo reports, there’s a new game in town: free web calculators.

An online graphing calculator called Desmos is already in use in tests from a College Board program and will be embedded into math tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium starting this fall, Toppo reports. Both groups administer thousands of major math tests a year, but until recently, students had to take those tests with physical calculators.

For years, those calculators primarily came from Texas Instruments, which has been in the classroom calculator business for decades. As Matt McFarland reported for The Washington Post in 2014, TI calculators don’t make up the bulk of the company’s business—semiconductors do. But with enormous margins and a monopoly on the market, the company has long been on top of the classroom calculator game.

That’s become a bone of contention for many, who argue that it’s unreasonable to expect students to invest large amounts of money on classroom supplies—especially supplies that haven’t appreciably advanced in years. As Mental Floss’ Rebecca O’Connell reports, the calculators sell for over $100, which represents a margin of well over 50 percent.

However, The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal notes that standardization—both in the classroom and during standardized tests—has helped keep the calculators on top. Some school districts simply provide the calculators; some universities allow students to rent them. But the calculators are simply expensive.

Desmos, on the other hand, is free for students. Textbook publishers and standardized test developers eat the cost instead, Toppo writes. Broader cultural trends have already affected calculators: As David Zax writes for the MIT Technology Review, Texas Instruments has already faced down pressure in recent years to make its calculators more competitive with smartphones by using more colors and LCD screens. But it remains to be seen how the switch to these web-based calculators will effect the company—or change the culture of math class.

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