Educators all over America worry about how their ninth and tenth graders will be able to afford those graphing calculators that increasingly are required in math class but that cost nearly $100 apiece. But in Virginia, those worries are at an end—thanks to an unprecedented $20 million program.

The Old Dominion this month launched a program to underwrite the purchase of graphing calculators for every student who needs one. It’s an experiment that could transform math curriculum standards. Its premise: Technological equity should be a cornerstone of education reform. The idea is likely to resonate in school systems from coast to coast.

In November, Virginia education officials purchased 200,000 calculators to help students meet Virginia’s new standards of learning. The standards, adopted by the state in 1995, require all algebra-level or higher math students to understand and demonstrate graphing applications on the calculators.

Yet the $95 price tag put the calculators out of many students’ reach. Often students would have to sign a calculator out from the school’s limited supply or share with someone else.

Virginia officials worried that those students who lacked nightly access to the calculators would be placed at a disadvantage when tested on the new curriculum standards.

“It was really an issue of equity,” said Tom Nuttal, K-12 math coordinator for Virginia’s Fairfax County schools. “The only way you can legitimately test kids on the use of the equipment is if they have regular access to it.”

So when a settlement with Trigon Blue Cross/Blue Shield gave the state $20 million in 1996, the General Assembly voted to spend the money to help keep the state’s promise on its math standards.

Tom Ferrio, a vice president for Texas Instruments — the company that most of the calculators were purchased from — told the Washington Post, “In terms of a major state purchase, it’s a first — both from us and from anyone else in the industry.”

The 200,000 calculators are enough to put one in the hands of every Algebra 1 and 2 student in Virginia —the entire ninth and tenth grade classes — and still have enough to equip 40 percent of the state’s eighth-graders.

Each school division will distribute the calculators individually. Though upperclassmen rely on the machines as well, Nuttal said Fairfax County’s first priority is to ensure that all Algebra 1 and 2 students have a calculator. Those are the subjects tested by the state.

Nuttal estimates that half the county’s high school students already own a graphing calculator. Even so, he said, Fairfax will probably issue a calculator to each algebra student, just as it does with textbooks, regardless of a student’s financial need.

“If we try to assign calculators only to students who need them, then we end up with a situation where a student is sitting beside someone with a calculator he got for free, and he’s saying, ‘How come I had to pay for mine?'” said Nuttal.

Students will be allowed to take the calculators home and must return them to the school at the end of the year. Nuttal said the calculators are very sturdy and that Fairfax officials are prepared to replace a few that might be lost or damaged each year.

The only problem Nuttal foresees is a general growth in the state’s population. He estimated that as class sizes increase, algebra enrollment may jump by 10,000 students each year. As of now, there is no plan to account for the annual increase.

“My guess is it’s a one-shot deal,” he said of the calculator purchase.

Still, many educators elsewhere are praising Virginia’s initiative.

“I’m envious,” Nancy Metz, coordinator of secondary math in Montgomery County, Md., told local reporters. “It really is a forward-thinking initiative.”

Virginia Department of Education

http://pen1.pen.k12.va.us/Anthology/VDOE

Fairfax County Public Schools

http://www.fcps.k12.va.us

Texas Instruments

http://www.ti.com

Also interesting: Secretary of Education Riley’s “State of Mathematics Education” speech (delivered Jan. 9 to joint meeting of American Mathematical Society (AMS) and Mathematical Association of America (MAA)), along with the Department’s math priorities:

http://www.ed.gov/inits.html

(initiative #2)