- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A Senate panel’s discussion about how best to overhaul the curriculum and testing procedures for Texas high schools at times felt like a political debate Monday, as a gubernatorial hopeful and two candidates for lieutenant governor shared the spotlight.

Tea party-backed state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston heads the Senate Education Committee but is also the favorite to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and will face him in a runoff for the Republican nomination next month. The winner advances to November’s general election against another committee member, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial nominee.

Also in attendance was state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat competing with Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, who is not seeking re-election. A former member of the education committee, Davis has continued to attend its meetings.

Last summer, the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly approved new high school graduation standards that scrapped a statewide mandate that most students pass algebra II and other advanced math and science classes. The goal was to create more flexibility for students who wanted to focus on vocational training for high-paying jobs right after graduation, instead of concentrating on college prep.

Lawmakers also cut the number of standardized tests high school students must pass from a nation-high 15 to five. That move came after Texas adopted a tough new test known as STAAR in 2012 and amid an outcry that the state was “over-testing” its youngsters.

On Monday, state education officials told the committee that, even with fewer exams, 24 percent of students are off-track to graduate because of failing STAAR tests. Patrick noted that so many students were still failing, even though passing standards were eased as the state adjusts to STAAR.

“When we talked about how we had a crisis in education this is it, we have a crisis in Education,” he said. “It’s clear.”

But Van de Putte pointed out that STAAR was designed to be more-demanding - noting that whenever the state makes a change in its testing regime, it takes some time for students and teachers to adjust and for passing rates to improve. She said Texas was right to let students “ease into” new testing.

Davis, meanwhile, said her longstanding fears that standardized tests weren’t really measuring what students are being taught persist.

“I am deeply concerned that we don’t set the bar before the test is given on what will be a passing grade” she said, adding that instead the state waits to see how students do and then creates passing standards “based on a desire for a particular outcome.”

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