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State's STAAR Calculator Directive Draws Concerns

Starting in the 2014-15 school year, eighth-graders in Texas public schools will be required to have graphing calculators or tablets for STAAR assessments. Some poorer school districts are concerned that the mandate ignores fiscal challenges they're already facing.

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As the state integrates a directive that requires eighth-graders in Texas public schools to have graphing calculators for STAAR testing, some poorer Texas school districts say that such mandates ignore the financial crunch that many districts are already facing.

In February, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams wrote to Texas superintendents to instruct them that they must ensure that eighth-grade students have graphing calculators for STAAR assessments, starting in the 2014-15 school year. The directive comes after the State Board of Education increased the algebra content on the exam, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

While districts have provided calculators for algebra classes, most eighth-grade math classes had previously not been supplied with the calculators, which cost more than $100 each. The state will not provide extra funding for the new calculator mandate, Ratcliffe said, adding that districts receive a specific allotment for spending on instructional materials.

To provide more flexibility for school districts, the requirements were amended to include the option of substituting calculators with math applications on tablet devices. But many property-poor districts and their advocates say that despite the options provided, resources are limited and they have other issues to consider.

“Most of the students in our school district live in poverty,” said Marcus Nelson, superintendent of the Laredo school district, where more than 90 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. "We don’t have big budgets to spend from. We are trying to buy the equipment, but we can’t ignore that it is expensive.”

In the Ysleta school district in El Paso, more than 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Officials there say funding tablets or calculators won't be easy. 

"We just don’t have the funds to purchase a tablet for every eighth-grade student in our district," said Patricia Ayala, the spokeswoman for the district.

As it apportions funding for calculators, Ysleta ISD is also reaching out to its high schools to contribute extra calculators to middle schools in the district. One high school has provided 60 calculators to a nearby middle school, Ayala said. The schools will also be holding morning and evening testing sessions to recycle calculator use throughout the day.

"We have limited funds, but it's not like this is a choice," Ayala said. "We need to be creative in the way we tackle this."

It’s hard for school districts with a lower tax base to buy the same instructional material as other districts, said Ray Freeman, deputy executive director of the Equity Center, which advocates for property-poor school districts.

“They’ll do what they have to do to be accredited, but it takes away money they are already spending elsewhere,” he said, adding that it creates a situation in which "schools might have to give up an optional Spanish or career technology elective, since they may not be able to fund the materials for it."

The state's overall funding system for public schools is again the target of a lawsuit, as more than two-thirds of Texas school districts are suing the state, saying the current system is inadequate and unfair. 

Celina Moreno, a legislative staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing property-poor school districts in the suit, said the state should address the bigger picture of school funding before considering directives like the calculator mandate. 

“When the state is making such policies, they can’t be mandating things in a vacuum,” said Moreno, who added that the state should reassess funding for poor districts to satisfy such requirements. “They should be looking at whether they are also funding schools equitably.”

The TEA says that if schools can prioritize their spending, the mandate should be easier for them to comply with. 

"We've sent millions of dollars to schools for textbooks and technology," Ratcliffe said, adding that many districts have taken the funding allotted to districts for instruction materials and bought tablets. "We are providing the [calculator] apps to give them a low-cost option."

Ratcliffe also said that low-funded districts many not be able to raise as much funding through local taxes, but they do receive the same amount of funding by the state for instructional materials.

Disclosure: The Equity Center was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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