April 18, 2013
By Heather Hollingsworth
Several dozen states are looking for an alternative to the GED high school equivalency test because of concerns that a new version coming out next year is more costly and will no longer be offered in a pencil and paper format.
The responsibility for issuing high school equivalency certificates or diplomas rests with states, and they’ve relied on the General Education Development exam since soon after the test was created to help returning World War II veterans.
But now 40 states and the District of Columbia are participating in a working group that’s considering what's available besides the GED, and two test makers are hawking new exams.
“It’s a complete paradigm shift because the GED has been the monopoly. It's been the only thing in town for high school equivalency testing. It’s kind of like Kleenex at this point,” said Amy Riker, director of high school equivalency testing for Educational Testing Service, which developed one of the alternative tests.
Last month, New York, Montana and New Hampshire announced they were switching to a new high school equivalency exam, and California officials began looking into amending regulations to drop the requirement that the state only use the GED test. Missouri has requested bids from test makers and plans to make a decision this month. Several others states, including Massachusetts, Maine, Indiana and Iowa, are making plans to request information about alternative exams.
Meanwhile, Tennessee and New Jersey are exploring offering more than one test.
“The national situation is definitely fluid,” said Tom Robbins, Missouri’s director of adult education and high school equivalency, noting that other states plan to use the GED for now and bid later.
The pushback comes as GED Testing Service prepares to introduce a new version of the exam in January. In the first revamp since for-profit Pearson Vue Testing acquired a joint ownership interest in the nonprofit Washington-based GED Testing Service, the cost of the test is doubling to $120. That’s led to a case of sticker shock for test takers, nonprofits and states. Some states subsidize some or all of the expense of the exam, while others add an administrative fee. The new GED test would cost $140 to take in Missouri if the state sticks with it.
Kirk Proctor, of the Missouri Career Center, said the organization is looking for a way to cover the increased test cost for students participating in a GED preparation and job training program he oversees. He said his students can’t come up with $140, noting they need help paying for the current, cheaper test.
“A lot of them are just barely making it,” he said. “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it's basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.’”
One program participant, Nicole Williams, a 21-year-old Kansas City mother of three, said she was hopeful she’d pass the GED test soon so she could avoid the electronic version. With it, she said, “you’ve got to learn how to type, use the computer, plus your GED. That’s three things instead of just trying to focus all on your GED test.”
Developers say the new version is needed because nearly all states are adopting tougher math and reading standards to ensure students are prepared for college and careers. Because the new version is so different, a million or so adults who have passed some but not all of the five parts of the current GED test must complete the missing sections by Dec. 31. If not, their scores will expire and they’ll have to begin again under the new program Jan. 1.
“The GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” said Randy Trask, president and CEO of GED Testing Service, which previously was solely operated by the nonprofit American Council on Education.
He said the computerized version, which students are passing at higher rates than the paper version in pilot sites, will be cheaper to administer because states will no longer have to pick up the tab for things like grading the exam. For test-takers who fail a section, the computerized version provides details about what skills they need to work on before retaking the exam.
“I personally went into it a little bit naively,” said Trask of the new version. “I don’t know why I expected a marching band, but I did because I’m convinced that what we are doing is the right thing for the adults in this country.”
Competitors responded with a paper version and a cheaper base price, although GED Testing Service said its price includes services the other two test makers don’t. The alternative exams’ makers also said they will work with states to find ways to combine scores from the GED with their new exams so students who have passed some sections of the current GED won’t be forced to start from scratch. GED Testing Service said that would undermine the validity of a state’s equivalency credential or diploma.
Trask also said he feared the competing exams would be confusing for colleges and employers. But states considering switching say they’ll put more emphasis on the equivalency credential or diploma they issue rather than the test taken to earn it.
Art Ellison, who leads the Bureau of Adult Education in New Hampshire, called the sudden choice in the exams “the new reality of adult education.” His state and Montana are switching to HiSET, a $50 test that the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, is offering. Both states said cost influenced their decision, with Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau proclaiming in a news release that residents “looking to improve their economic situation by obtaining a high school equivalency diploma should not have to overcome a significant financial barrier in order to achieve that goal.”
Ellison also noted that a paper option was important because many students in adult education classes lack the skills needed to take a computer-based test and that it will take time to beef up the courses to add that training.
Meanwhile, New York chose California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill's new Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC. Developers said it will range in price from $50 to $60.
Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a news release that without the change, New York would have had to pay the GED test maker twice as much or limit the number of test takers because state law bars residents from being charged to take the equivalency exam.
“We can’t let price deny anyone the opportunity for success.”