The state’s new AzMERIT test will cost Tucson-area school districts more than $746,000 for equipment needed to support students taking the assessment in the spring.
That total doesn’t include costs for two districts — Amphitheater and Sahuarita — that confirmed that they too need to buy a large quantity of pricey advanced-function calculators but haven’t yet determined how many or what they will have to spend.
With only weeks before the test is to be administered, school districts not able to offer the computer version of the test are learning they will need to provide students with expensive graphing calculators for use on the math portion of the paper version of the test.
Such computers are built into the package for the computer version. But an analysis by the Arizona Department of Education found just 40 percent of schools statewide are equipped to test via computer. The other 60 percent will have to use the paper version, requiring the schools to provide the high-tech calculators. Factors taken into consideration included computer availability, bandwidth and speed of transmission. Some schools deemed computer-ready still elected to administer the paper version.
The Tucson Unified School District, the largest in Southern Arizona, does not have enough computers to test all of its students within the testing time deadlines, nor does it have enough calculators to go around.
As a result, the TUSD Governing Board approved spending more than $457,000 Tuesday night to buy 9,600 scientific and graphing calculators deemed suitable by the ADE.
“This item is not one that we planned for or budgeted for because it wasn’t something that was on the horizon until the state decided to go with the AzMERIT over the PARCC,” said TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. PARCC, whch stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is the more frequently used Common Core assessment test nationwide, and the one TUSD spent three years preparing for until AzMERIT was adopted in November. Sanchez said the unbudgeted calculator purchase was “outside of our control,” but told the board that failing to provide them and leaving students to fend for themselves “would be irresponsible.”
TUSD is trying to hold costs down by staggering testing and sharing the equipment. Had the district attempted to purchase enough to allow all students to use them at the same time, the cost would have come in around $1 million.
The Marana Unified School District had to come up with $215,000 for calculators, and will cover it with bond money.
“We were so blessed that our community has been supportive of us and passed the 2010 capital bond, so we were able draw from that to cover the expenditures,” said Brett Kramer, MUSD’s chief improvement officer.
Like TUSD, the Flowing Wells School District was caught off guard, discovering that the equipment would be needed while reviewing test administration materials this month.
The district used $15,000 of the “very limited capital dollars remaining” in its budget, which will also allow for staggered use.
TUSD Governing Board member Mark Stegeman took issue with buying what he described as the “Cadillac of calculators,” saying he was able to find lower-priced options through a quick Internet search.
Sanchez, however, explained that TUSD was unable to go the discount route because of detailed requirements from the state, which include what functions the calculators must perform — and what they may not. The state even provided specific brand and model information for allowed calculators.
Board President Adelita Grijalva and Clerk Kristel Foster acknowledged discomfort with the expense — with Foster saying she would rather invest the money in computers — but they felt compelled to provide students with the tools they need now.
“There may be some districts in our state that can send this request home with the children and the parents would purchase the item for them, but that’s not the reality for most of the families that are attending our schools,” Grijalva said.
The Sahuarita Unified School District found it didn’t have an extra $48,000 it needs to buy 1,400 calculators, so it is working on plans to stagger testing so it can get by buying fewer. It doesn’t yet know how many fewer, said Assistant Superintendent Brett Bonner, who, in addition to the expense, had other concerns.
“Will (calculators) be on back order? What is the projected time frame for delivery? Are the prices going to shift due to an increased demand?” Bonner said.
Sanchez said that’s exactly why TUSD moved quickly to approve the purchase — to get to the front of the line in anticipation that a lot of Arizona districts will be placing orders for the same calculator.
Heidi Aranda, TUSD’s senior math program coordinator, said graphing calculators are commonly used in the classroom, and called it unfortunate that the equipment isn’t already available to all students. However, under the state’s previous high-stakes test, AIMS, calculator use was not allowed, and student scores were adjusted to account for that.
While the ADE has tried to mitigate the cost to schools by allowing the staggered testing, AzMERIT — which is designed to be a computer-based test — is intended to go deeper than AIMS, requiring that students have access to technology to solve problems.
There will be no concessions for students if their schools can’t provide equipment. While it is not ideal to offer the computer and paper tests, ADE spokesman Charles Tack said it was not an option to force all schools to administer it online this year.
“We’re never looking to increase costs for districts,” Tack said. “Just like it’s costing the state more to offer the paper test, as we go through this transition, there will be bumps in the road.”
Sunnyside, Tucson’s second largest school district, is in a very different situation than most others because of its bond-funded laptop initiative, said district spokeswoman Mary Veres.
Every student in grades four through 12 has a laptop, and there is a laptop for every other third-grader in the district.
The students are also already equipped with headsets that are used in class daily. But the district is considering purchasing a few extras in case any are left at home on the test day.
School districts administering the online test, like Catalina Foothills and Tanque Verde, did not escape unscathed, having to purchase headsets for students and computer mice, although that cost is a fraction of the price of calculators.
The Vail School District invested $45,000 in new network gear and upgraded Internet capacity at a cost of $3,600 a month. Two Vail elementary schools will take the paper test, but calculators will not be needed because they are not permitted for grades three through six.
Most Amphitheater schools will take the computer test. But two of the district’s three high schools — Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge — and Wilson K-8, Coronado K-8, Harelson Elementary and Holaway Elementary will test on paper, with calculators needed for grades seven through 12. The district doesn’t yet know how many.