AUSTIN (AP) — A state expert denied Monday that Texas made its latest standardized test too difficult, saying such exams have always gotten harder but that students still tend to improve their scores over time.

Testifying at the sweeping school finance trial before state District Judge John Dietz was Texas Education Agency director of student assessment Gloria Zyskowski. She was shown sample questions from Texas standardized tests given to ninth graders in 1982.

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To make the point about how much more difficult such exams have become through the years, Zyskowski said such questions weren’t likely to even appear on today’s tests for third graders.

Texas has been sued by more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state’s more than 5 million students. They claim that the way schools are funded is so inadequate and unfair that it violates state constitutional guarantees.

The state Legislature voted in 2011 to reduce funding to public schools by $5.4 billion even though Texas’ booming population has seen enrollment grow by 80,000 students annually. Districts say the cuts have been especially devastating amid Texas’ implementation of new student accountability measures built on a more-difficult standardized test known as STAAR.

Zyskowski, who once said at a conference that STAAR would be “really, really hard,” denied in court that the passing standards were set too high. She noted that teachers and other educators had been part of the committees that set the standards.

Students took STAAR for the first time last year. Under state law, high school students must get a passing average on 15 end-of-course STAAR tests to graduate. There are three exams each in math, science, social studies, reading and writing.

The task will get more difficult in coming years because officials set passing standards relatively low when STAAR was given for the first time but will gradually make them harder.

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Students had to correctly answer only 37 percent of the questions on the Algebra I and biology tests to pass this year; and 46 percent correct on the world geography test. To pass tests in reading and writing, students had to get more than 50 percent correct.

The tougher STAAR passing standards will be fully phased-in by the 2014-2015 school year. Had they already been in place, however, the biology passing rate among ninth graders would have been 41 percent, and the Algebra 1 passing rate would have been 39 percent.

In English, it would have been 34 percent for writing and 46 percent for reading. In world geography, it would have been 40 percent.

Still, Zyskowski testified that student performance on the standardized test that was the predecessor to STAAR, known as TAKS, had improved each year. She added that the achievement gap between white students and minority groups had narrowed over time.

Asked if STAAR performance will follow that trajectory, Zyskowsi said, “The expectation is the same pattern would prevail.”

Testimony in the trial will last into January, and then it will be up to Dietz to rule. Whatever he decides, however, is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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