Updated Jan. 2
Earning a GED in Pennsylvania has just become a whole lot harder.
The Graduate Equivalency Diploma — now administered by the for-profit group Pearson — has been revamped since Jan. 1 in ways proponents say will give the test greater credibility and better prepare students for work and college.
But for many high school dropouts hoping to claw their way back into the job market, the New Year is bringing about anxiety instead of happiness.
The GED test, now aligned with the new Common Core state standards, is purely computer-based. Test takers who plan to continue their education can opt for a more rigorous version of the exam. And it costs 60 percent more, jumping from $75 to $120.
“It’s a disaster,” said Bonnie Kaye. “They’re holding high school dropouts to an educational standard that high school students aren’t being held to.”
Kaye has been running a GED prep center in Northeast Philadelphia for seven years. For more than two decades before that, she was an instructor at the Community College of Philadelphia.
The new test will do nothing, Kaye said, but keep struggling, low-income high school dropouts from getting the piece of paper they need to secure employment.
“The company that bought the test, PearsonVUE, claims it makes people ‘college ready.’ The point is a lot of people aren’t going to college. I mean that’s the reality,” said Kaye. “People need jobs to survive. People need to get work to support their families. People need to get off the system, instead of straining the state. How are they going to do this if they can’t get a job?”
Kaye especially fears that the new test will discriminate against older people who aren’t used to working with computers.
“In a perfect world, if we all had a perfect life, yeah, maybe it would raise the standards,” she said. “But now it’s just going to keep people down.”
Citywide, only 37 percent of GED hopefuls passed the old version of the test.
Since the changes were announced, other states have opted to allow students to take tests designed by Pearson’s competitors. New York state has completely rejected the Pearson test. New Jersey will allow students to choose from three test providers.
For a year, Kaye has called on the Pennsylvania Legislature to do the same — so far to little avail. (Kaye challenges Pennsylvania’s lawmakers to actually take the new test. If they pass, she said, they can take over her business.)
State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, has been one of the legislators sympathetic to Kaye’s advocacy. He calls the GED change “risky,” saying “it ought to be easier, not harder to get the GED.”
“To many, many people,” he said, “this is an impediment to their advancement, not an aid.”
Not ‘rocket science’
The makers of the test sharply disagree with their critics’ assessment.
The rationale behind the changes comes down to one thing — jobs, said GED Testing Service representative CT Turner.
In Pennsylvania, Turner said, “80 percent of jobs basically now require some kind of education beyond high school or GED credential.”
Nationwide, he continued, “less than 12 percent of GED grads currently go on to earn any kind of education certificate.”
“And so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we have to do more,” said Turner. “So the new 2014 GED program was revamped and upgraded to do just that, to make sure adults really have the skills that are necessary for the college and career training programs that are needed today.”
GED Testing Service is a collaboration of Pearson and the American Council on Education, the nonprofit higher education association that used to administer the test on its own.
‘Bring it on’
Not all GED-prep centers have reacted to the changes negatively.
Rebecca Wagner, executive director of Community Learning Center, anticipated the changes will produce “net-positive” results.
She sais she admires the new test for challenging adult learners to increase their computer literacy and advance their cognitive skills.
“You’re talking to someone who’s not an alarmist. I’m adopting a ‘wait and see.’ We’re prepared. We’ve studied it,” Wagner said. “We’re all excited about it. We’re like, yeah, ‘bring it on.'”
Wagner’s not yet convinced that the new test will mean a drop in the number of students who pass.
“It may be different if you talk to me in a year,” she said. “I may say, ‘Boy, I was off by a mile, or 20,’ but I don’t want to underestimate adult learners.”
Like Kaye, Wagner would like the state to look into giving alternative tests, but she worries that a multitude of testing options could confuse potential employers and colleges.
Mike Sack is the education and development director for YesPhilly, a nonprofit that provides education services (including GED test prep) to 17- to 22-year-olds.
Despite the fact that he thinks fewer students will pass, he welcomes the new test’s rigor.
“It’s what our learning population should be prepped for,” said Sack. “I think this will push the service providers to better align their curriculum and to teach better, and that’s a good thing.”
Sack, though, does worry about the costs associated with PearsonVue’s takeover of the test.
All in all, the changes stand to make PearsonVue a profit while asking individuals and nonprofits to dig deeper into their pockets.
Practice tests are no longer free. Graphic calculators are needed to complete the math. Organizations are being encouraged to buy a whole new slate of test-prep materials.
A rush for the old test
In the days leading up to the New Year, as the old test was set to expire, GED hopefuls across the city rushed to pass before the deadline.
Robert Allen runs the Harambee-Allen testing center in Overbrook, where he said the number of test-takers doubled as the deadline approached.
“They want to get it done. They’re anxious and they’re nervous and they’re stressed,” Allen said. “They don’t know what they’re going to do without this. They don’t want to go into the next year.”
Unless students passed the entire five-part test before the New Year, they had to start from scratch.
On Dec. 30th, I visited Harambee-Allen to hear the stories of those hoping to earn GEDs before the deadline. Listen to the story here.
A previous version of this story included fewer perspectives and was published before the changes went into effect.