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Calculator Calculations

Select the best arithmetic, scientific or graphing calculator for your student.

Calculators have been a mainstay of class supply lists since 1991, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended that "every teacher at every level promote the use of calculators to enhance mathematics instruction." Research has since borne out this mandate, showing that learning to do math both “by hand” and via calculator helps students solidify the way they think about processes used to solve problems. 

Beyond classwork, calculator use is now required on many state standardized tests and allowed by both the SAT and ACT. Depending on your child’s grade level and math coursework, you’ll be asked to send in one of three types of calculators, at varying — and, sometimes, dizzyingly costly — price points. 

Arithmetic calculators are the most basic, used mainly in lower elementary classes. They have a numeric keypad with the four basic operations and display up to eight digits. They are the least expensive model, ranging $10 or so. 

Scientific calculators, used in many higher elementary and middle school math classes, have a broader range of functions and a more extensive keypad with scientific and engineering notation. They cost around $20 apiece.

Graphing calculators, required in high school classes from algebra up through calculus, have an extensive range of operations, a larger screen that displays more digits, the addition of alphabetic characters and the ability to graph data and symbolic expressions. This is where the sticker shock comes in: Teacher-specified models — often from the Texas Instruments line, though HP and Casio also have options — can cost anywhere from $70 to $160. 

Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that the calculator required this year will be the same model your child needs for subsequent grades. Given this fact, you might want to look into ways to cut your calculator costs.

Discounts: BargainCalculators.com and CalculatorTI.com discount new models. If you’re good with a used version, and you can’t locate one through friends and neighbors with older kids, then turn to eBay or dedicated supply sites like SellYour Calculators.com, CalculatorSource.com and DorksBooks.com.

Rentals: Pay low monthly or “semester-long” fees at Rentcalculators.org or Graphtor.com, then send the model back when it’s no longer needed.

Trade-in: Amazon.com’s Trade-In program allows you to send in an old calculator and apply the cost they pay for the used model against that of a new one. You can do this whether or not you originally purchased the calculator on Amazon.

Digital options: If your child’s district allows the use of in-class iPads, smartphones or laptops, free sites like WolframAlpha.com and apps like PI83 Graphing Calculator ($.99; iPhone) offer the same functionality at no or low cost.

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