AUSTIN (AP) — A top business group called Wednesday for easing Texas’ tough new high school graduation standards amid widespread outcry over the set of standardized tests known as STAAR.

The Texas Association of Business said it wants the state Legislature to scrap STAAR exams in world geography and world history now required for graduation. It also recommended giving schools more leeway in deciding how much the test results will count toward students’ final grades and a three-year transition period to give current students a reprieve from STAAR’s full consequences.

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The association, one of the most-influential groups of its kind statewide, had been a vocal supporter of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, which students began taking last school year. STAAR replaced a different standardized test called TAKS.

Association President Bill Hammond has long said tougher academic standards are the only way to prepare the state’s workforce for the more-demanding jobs of the future. Asked Wednesday if he was retreating from that position, Hammond said “some can view it that way.”

“I think it is a modification that gets us to where we need to be,” he told a news conference at the State Capitol.

Hammond added that the 2009 law that raised graduation requirements and created STAAR “quite honestly overdid it a little bit.”

“Given the criticism, we’ve come up with something that will meet the needs of employers in the future,” Hammond said.

STAAR requires high school students to pass 16 exams to graduate. The testing system was originally designed to count 15 percent toward some students’ final high school grades in core courses. But Texas has suspended that rule until at least next school year in response to complaints from parents and students who felt it could hurt their chances of being accepted to top universities.

Hammond said core skills like math and science were more vital to career-readiness than world geography and world history and dropping both tests would eventually help reduce to six the overall number of exams high school graduates need to pass.

Dan Patrick, chairman of the Texas Senate Education Committee, said in a statement Wednesday that the state shouldn’t “back away from rigor or accountability.”

“At the same time we must ensure that our test schedule accomplishes our goal of measuring student performance,” the Houston Republican said. “Too much testing could have an opposite impact on student performance.”

STAAR is designed to get harder over time. Still, tens of thousands of students failed at least one exam last year. Hammond said he was “very disappointed in the education community” for failing to better prepare students for the exam.

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Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said Hammond was “headed in the right direction” with the new plan.

“But to focus on the accountability system when the legislative majority and the governor are not accountable and have not fulfilled their constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools is wrong,” Robison said.

The Texas Legislature voted last year to cut $4 billion from the formula used to fund public schools and an additional $1.4 billion in grant programs for things like pre-kindergarten.

That prompted more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state’s more than 5 million public-school students to sue, claiming the way Texas funds schools is so inadequate it violates state constitutional guarantees.

Districts have argued in court that the funding reductions were especially costly since they came when teachers had to get students ready for STAAR’s tougher exams. Also, Texas’ booming population has seen public-school enrollment increase by an average of 80,000 students annually.

Hammond said unless lawmakers pass the association’s plan or something similar, his group will oppose efforts to increase funding for public schools when the Legislature reconvenes next month — even the extra $2 billion needed just to keep up with enrollment growth.

“The first question that should be resolved is this one,” Hammond said. “Then we can talk about money.”

Robison said his group supports increased educational accountability, but wants a system that will rely on more than just students’ standardized-test scores.

“We should put the entire STAAR system on hold or scratch it, and then restore funding cuts,” he said. “Then, we can install an accountability system that actually means something.”

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

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