Texas District Pilots Desmos as Alternative to Graphing Calculators

Texas District Pilots Desmos as Alternative to Graphing Calculators

“It’s hard to believe, but my students were among the first in the world to do it,” gushes middle school math teacher Cathy Yenca. “And after two test runs prior to testing day, there really weren’t any glitches.”

On April 20th, 600 students attending schools in the Eanes Independent School District in Austin, TX piloted the Desmos Test Mode app during the eighth grade math STAAR assessment. The district provides each student with an iPad for the duration of the school year, which eighth graders can now use in the place of traditional graphing calculators during the exams.

“Desmos is our go-to graphing tool throughout the school year,” says Yenca. So she figured, why not let students use a version of the familiar tool on their state tests?

Yenca collaborated with the Desmos team to create a version of the tool that would be appropriate for STAAR testing. It required stripping some functions. “We turned off example graphs, and a feature that solves quadratic equations,” says Eli Luberoff, founder and CEO of Desmos. They also added a bright blue bar across the top of the screen of the test-compatible app “so that teachers who are proctoring can easily see that students are using the right app,” Yenca explains.

To get permission from the Texas Education Agency to use the iPad app on STAAR tests, the team at Eanes ISD also had to restrict Wifi and camera access during the exams. Using Casper Focus, teachers locked down student iPads, so that only the Desmos application worked.

Desmos offers districts an undeniable upside: the app is free, while TI-84 plus graphing calculators retail for around $115. Luberoff also hopes being available on multiple platforms makes the tool more accessible. He explains, “Since Desmos is on a browser and on a phone, knowing how to use it [on an iPad] isn’t a stumbling block when you get into the test.”

Yenca adds that “Desmos is more fluid, more interactive” and more user-friendly than graphing calculators, as “the TI graphing calculator is very pixelated.” And while she reports that most of her 49 students still prefer the TI graphing calculator during the tests, many used both tools.

Two Canadian school districts, in Quebec and Ontario, have also approved Desmos Test App for their students’ exams. And if Desmos’ test app continues its smooth rollout, computer-based testing organizations like Smarter Balanced ought to pay heed, especially after their graphing tools have been described as “confusing” and “primitive.”

As far as Smarter Balanced and PARCC state testing go, Luberoff is aware of the opportunity, but is making no promises for the moment. “Let’s just say we’re in discussions with both organizations,” he coyly tells EdSurge.

Yenca hopes to expand the use of Desmos Test Mode beyond Eanes eighth graders next year. “I also teach Algebra 1, and those students are eager to use Desmos on tests too,” she says.

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