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Coming soon: A tougher GED exam

The changes are due in 2014. The goal is to align the tests with demands of the workforce and postsecondary programs.
  • ged yesphilly
    Photo: Velvet S. McNeil, Velvet Multi Media

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The GED program, a battery of tests that has proved a lifeline to many a high school dropout, is about to get tougher.

And local providers of adult education worry that changes to the tests, set to take effect in 2014, may overwhelm the aspirations of some learners, dealing them a severe setback.

The changes to the GED will count as the biggest overhaul to the credentialing program since its inception 70 years ago. It will align GED goals with business, government, and foundation initiatives promoting strong skill sets and postsecondary training.

"We're not doing anyone any favor [with weak tests]. We know 80 percent of jobs require some form of education beyond high school," said CT Turner, GED Testing Service spokesman, taking note of big changes in workforce needs.

"A high school diploma isn't enough. A GED credential isn't enough."

Over the decades, acquiring a GED, or high school equivalency degree, has opened doors to employment, college or other postsecondary training for adults lacking a high school diploma. More than 17 million people have earned their GED since the program started in 1942, with about 475,000 passing the tests in 2009. More than 18,000 won GED diplomas that year in Pennsylvania.

The challenge for the American Council on Education, which administers the program, has been to assure employers that the tests are a reliable measure of a job applicant's level of learning – that a GED holder can go toe-to-toe with a diploma holder.

Last year, the council announced it was joining with Pearson, a media company, to develop new, more rigorous tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards adopted by most states.

The tests were last updated a decade ago, and that resulted in a drop in the numbers of both test-takers and test-passers, though numbers began to rise again within a few years.

The 2014 plan also calls for an overhaul of professional development for GED teachers, career and college counseling for GED applicants, and extensive revisions to the GED curriculum.

Acquiring the GED will be promoted less as an end in itself and more as a step toward college or some other postsecondary training. The new exams will have two competency levels: one connoting high school equivalency and a higher one denoting college readiness.

The tests are still in development, but several key points have emerged:

  • The tests will be more rigorous and challenging in terms of content knowledge in the five testing areas (language arts/writing, language arts/reading, math, science, and social studies).
  • The tests will require at least minimal computer and keyboarding skills. Paper-and-pencil testing will be a thing of the past.
  • The costs of taking the test, now about $75 in Pennsylvania, almost certainly will increase, though new pricing has not yet been set.

For adult education providers, the upcoming changes mean a scramble to revamp curriculum, offer professional development to teachers, and counsel would-be GED seekers on the consequences of delay.

"I am motivating people to get their GED in the next year, before the change. I'm pushing students to sign up now, not later," said April Jefferson, a career coach and case manager with Community Learning Center (CLC) on Lehigh Avenue at North Broad Street.

Jefferson herself holds a GED and is seeking a bachelor's degree in psychology.

The center serves adults mostly in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and older – one gray-bearded gentleman recently won his GED so he could cross it off his "bucket list."

Adults who left school long before computers were in every classroom will have to learn keyboarding and other basic computer skills before they can even think about answering substantive questions on the new computerized tests.

CLC Executive Director Rebecca Wagner said that her center's clientele will be severely impacted by any increase in the $75 fee. She also lamented the shortage of testing sites in Philadelphia. Currently there is a wait of four to six weeks to take the tests.

"We are concerned about the impact on students at the grassroots [in terms of] keyboarding, and costs, and knowledge. Science is science, but right now if you can critically think, you can figure out the GED," she said.

Critics say the current GED curriculum falls short of the skills needed in the modern workplace. A year ago, New York City unveiled a pilot program to raise GED standards, citing analyses showing students could pass the current GED with only 8th grade proficiency in reading and math and 6th grade writing skills. The U.S. military classifies GED (and virtual high school) degrees as "Tier 2" – carrying less weight than a high school diploma.

But Wagner challenged assertions that the GED is no match for a high school diploma.

"In many ways, people who have been through the GED process – it's very difficult – have a leg up on people who have coasted through high school," she said. "You don't glide through the GED."

Studying for the GED can take three months or even years, depending on a learner's skill level.

Wagner calls the GED a basic "workforce credential," echoing the view of labor experts and employers.

Walter Yakabosky, director of training at the Energy Coordinating Agency in Philadelphia, noted that in the weatherization and energy efficiency industry, workers now need state and even national certifications that require passing difficult tests of their own.

"Given the level that the books and materials are written, individuals without a high school diploma or GED would struggle. Even with these credentials, many do struggle. For me, credentials matter," Yakabosky said.

Jefferson, the CLC career coach, said she uses her own experience to exhort dropouts to pursue their GED.

"Not just here, but in my neighborhood, I promote success. It can be done," Jefferson said. "I had two kids by the time I got a GED, but now I know how to be self-sufficient. I also know what it's like to not have a GED, to not get a job – to be a statistic."

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.