Smarter Balanced to Embed Desmos Online Graphing Calculator In Math Tests

By Liana Loewus — May 08, 2017 2 min read
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The Smarter Balanced test group announced today that it has partnered with Desmos, a company that created a free online graphing calculator that is giving Texas Instruments a run for its money.

As of next year, students in the 15 states that are administering the Smarter Balanced common-core exams will be using the Desmos calculator while they take their state math tests, rather than the long-used handheld calculators. In fact, in 10 of those states, middle school students are already using the online tool for the current testing season.

Tony Alpert, the executive director for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said the decision was based on a need to make calculators more accessible, especially for students who are blind or visually impaired. The Desmos calculator will support refreshable Braille displays, which translate words on a computer monitor into Braille, and supply audio tones to indicate the slope and direction of a line, he said.

But a joint press release frames the decision as targeting economic inequalities. It states:

Until recently, high school and college math students have had to rely almost exclusively on expensive, handheld graphing calculators costing more than $100. Students who could not afford these expensive calculators were left with limited options, as were the many schools who couldn’t afford to purchase the calculators on their students’ behalf. ... Smarter Balanced wanted students to have an alternative to expensive handheld graphing calculators for students taking its middle and high school math assessments. That required an online calculator that Smarter Balanced could embed directly into the test ... .

It’s true that one company—Texas Instruments—has long had a lock on the school graphing calculator business. (In fact, anyone reading this who went to middle or high school in the 1990s or later is likely to have used one of the clunky devices at some point.)

The Smarter Balanced exam has always had an embedded calculator known as an equation editor that performed basic functions, but some educators complained it was tough to use (though not an insurmountable challenge). “The layout is more intuitive” with Desmos, said Alpert.

David and Goliath?

The emergence of Desmos, and particularly in light of this partnership with a large-scale test company, could be shaping up to become a computer-age David and Goliath story.

Eli Luberoff began developing the software behind Desmos in 2007 while on leave from Yale University, where he majored in math and physics. He officially launched the company in 2011.

“They innovated this calculator through really almost a ‘mom and pop'-type shop,” said Alpert.

The online calculator is free for anyone and can be used on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The calculator has “millions of active users a month across 146 countries logging 300,000 hours on the calculator each day,” according to the press release.

Publishers including Pearson and the College Board have also embedded it into some of their products.

According to Alpert, Smarter Balanced paid about $460,000 for a three-year contract with Desmos. That gives six million students access to the tool, he noted.

The calculator that students will use during testing has some key differences from the one online; most notably, it won’t solve equations with single variable solutions (like x+4=8) for students. Students in the early grades will have access to less functionality than those in high school.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.