Once, it was a slow, dreary path from y=2x

* 3 to y=4x-5 in Elaine Schmitt's algebra classes. Her ninth-graders would doggedly plug numbers into the equation and plot the results onto graph paper, slowly watching the lines emerge.

But today, it's a breeze, with gadgets known as graphing calculators now present in every math classroom at Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County. Students just tap the equations into the number pad and let the machine grind the numbers. The lines materialize on a small screen; instantly, students can see which rises more steeply, where they intersect.

Math teachers throughout the region say that the latest generation of calculator has revolutionized the way they teach, by dramatizing the power of numbers and letting students tackle more complicated problems.

But there's one drawback--the price tag. At roughly $100 per device, graphing calculators are carefully hoarded classroom supplies, and that's where they stay--unless students can afford their own. Many can't, which bothers Schmitt and other educators.

"If the students use them at school and then have no way to practice the same things at home," she said, "then the learning is not as significant, and not as long-term."

It's the latest wrinkle in the debate over electronic equity. Ever since the personal computer revolution of a decade ago, educators have fretted that children from homes and school districts with few computers won't be able to keep up in the workplace with children who grew up fully wired.

Concern about graphing calculators is newer and more urgent. The costly hand-held devices are not only permitted but now strongly encouraged for many standardized tests, including the SAT. Students in Maryland and Virginia will be expected to have advanced calculators on hand for the statewide exams they will soon have to pass in order to graduate.

"It's going to exaggerate the digital divide," said Jim Kaput, a professor of math at the University of Massachusetts and Dartmouth College who heads a program that promotes the use of technology in math curriculums.

Although officials in Virginia spent $20 million two years ago to buy take-home graphing calculators for every ninth- and 10th-grader in the state, school districts in Maryland are still scrambling to buy enough calculators for students to share in the classroom.

Meanwhile, in the District, school officials last year decided not to allow students to use even the most basic calculators on the annual Stanford 9 test, simply because so few classrooms and students have access to them.

"Unless we can provide them for everyone, it's not fair," said school spokeswoman Denise Tann. "We're just trying to get enough money for books!"

Not long ago, the idea of using calculators in schoolwork was considered blasphemous by many math purists, who feared children would not learn basic computational skills.

But over the past decade, the devices have become an everyday part of high school math instruction, with many educators seeing calculator savviness as an essential skill rather than a crutch.

"You go to the grocery store, there's an automatic calculator adding up your purchases. The more sophisticated jobs, the more sophisticated calculators they're going to be using," said Gary Heath, chief of arts and sciences for the Maryland Department of Education. "They're ubiquitous in the job market."

Some teachers remain concerned that their students rely too heavily on calculators. But most say they push the basics of computation before allowing students to work with the devices.

Calculators, they say, allow them to assign more complex math problems requiring students to juggle several equations at once. They also enable students to solve real-world math problems, using data like the rate of gravity or the rise of the stock market, which would generate messy, digital-ridden numbers that take too long to compute by pencil.

Graphing calculators, in particular, are being lauded for making complex math more tangible for students. They can instantly reveal the weird, wavering beauty of y=x{+3}

* 2x{+2}-4--a dramatic, rolling swoop up the graph, with a little ripple in the middle--without bogging down students in computations.

Teachers insist that it doesn't matter that the students haven't plotted each point on their own. "What they're looking for are the characteristics--how does that function behave?" said Tom Nuttall, mathematics coordinator for Fairfax County schools.

Yet for all the ease they bring to math, the devices--with dozens of buttons and dozens of functions--are not necessarily easy to master. And some teachers say they see a difference in skill level between the students who have calculators at home and those who rely on school equipment during class time.

At Einstein, where nearly 30 percent of students come from low-income families, Schmitt estimates that fewer than 15 percent of Algebra I students and 30 percent of geometry students own a calculator.

Yet she notes that as students advance in math, they are much more likely to get one. Other teachers say that students are requesting graphing calculators for birthday or Christmas presents.

"Parents are becoming more willing to buy them, especially when the kids hit calculus or trigonometry," said Sandy Wynne, a math teacher at Oxon Hill High School.

In Maryland, a state equipment assistance fund provides school systems with matching grants to help them buy calculators, and state officials estimate that $1 million worth of graphing calculators have been purchased since 1995.

But school districts say they will need many more before the statewide math tests begin in 2001.

"Everybody has to take it at the same time, so every child needs a calculator--you can't share," said Leroy Tompkins, Prince George's County schools associate superintendent for instruction. He said he probably will request several million dollars for new calculators in next year's budget.

A state task force now exploring an overhaul of math instruction is also considering the question of access to math technology.

Brad Findell, program officer for the federally funded Mathematical Sciences Education Board, said the problem of calculator access, though "very real," will disappear over the next decade as technology costs decline and a variety of government and private programs help schools buy them.

But Allan Bellman, a math teacher at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, noted that every time the price of calculators comes within reach, schools start adapting their curriculum around the next generation of more complex, more expensive gadgets.

Math educators, he said, should try to agree on "the baseline calculator we need," he said, "and stop taking advantage of all the bells and whistles."

CAPTION: Graphing calculators cost about $100, and many can't afford them.