In 2011, in collaboration with the American Council on Education, the mega-publisher Pearson took over the GED—the General Education Diploma—program through which a high school dropout can earn an equivalency certificate that counts as a diploma and that helps the person who earns a GED get a job or get into college. The GED has been part of our education scene in the United States since 1942 during WWII; it was launched to help veterans who had left high school before graduation—when they were drafted or when they chose to volunteer for the military.
In January of 2014, Pearson instituted a revised GED exam—a new version of the GED that has to be taken entirely on-line. At the end of the first year of the administration of Pearson’s new test, Daniel McGraw, a reporter for Cleveland’s alternative newspaper, The Scene, just published a blockbuster report on Pearson’s destruction of the GED and with it the path to a second chance for hundreds of thousands of adults across America each year.
Pearson’s partner in this venture, the American Council on Education (ACE) is an organization of college presidents, and it is presumably with ACE’s encouragement that Pearson emphasizes college readiness in the new test despite that many who seek to pass the GED aspire to job placement or technical education. On its website, ACE describes the purpose of the new GED: “’This new, comprehensive GED program is a critical step forward in the American Council on Education’s efforts to expand the pipeline of learners who are prepared for college-level work,’ said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad… ‘It will better support and equip adult learners to compete in today’s economy and be qualified for good jobs that pay a living wage.’”
Pearson changed the way candidates take the exam as well as the content of the test. Pearson’s new GED must be taken on-line, and it is based on the new Common Core standards, which emphasize analysis, higher-order thinking, and more advanced math. While the older test emphasized basic math and algebra, the new test includes questions like this sample provided by McGraw: “Cilia are very thin, hair-lie projections from cells. They are 2.0 x 10-4 (-4 is an exponent that can’t be shown in this blog’s font options.). What is the maximum number of cilia that would fit side by side-without overlapping—across a microscope slide that is 25 millimeters wide?” The test-taker has four multiple-choice options, all using negative exponents. As an English major with a graduate degree, I confess I would have no idea how to approach this problem, though it did make me start thinking about the number of angels who might dance on the head of a pin.
In an examination of December 2014 data, McGraw details the dismal results of the launch of Pearson’s new GED test. “In the United States, according to the GED Testing Service, 401,388 people earned a GED in 2012, and about 540,000 in 2013. This year… only about 55,000 have passed nationally. That is a 90 percent drop off from last year.” “In Ohio, 16,092 passed the test in 2012, and 19,976 did so in 2013, but only 1,458 have passed so far this year.” “About 2,100 prisoners in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections earned a GED in both 2012 and 2013. Only 97 have earned the GED in 2014. Project Learn, the local program contracted to tutor inmates in the Cuyahoga County Jail, saw a total of 80 inmates pass the GED test in the past three years, but only one county jail inmate has passed so far this year.”
Then there is the cost of even trying. “Most test takers will pay $120 for the new test, up from $40 previously. A small sample test is offered online for free, but to get a larger sample of questions (about half the size of the actual test…) prospective testers pony up $6 per section. So in theory, it could cost a student $168 to take two sample tests and the actual test one time.” McGraw quotes C.T. Turner, GED’s spokesman, about the decision to eliminate the paper and pencil testing option: “to make sure those passing the test had the computer skills which reflected college and career readiness… We are measuring what a student who graduates from high school now has to be proficient in, and knowing how to use a computer is part of that.” Never mind that candidates for the GED are more likely than the general population to be living in extreme poverty, to be homeless, to be incarcerated, to lack access to a computer or the internet.
McGraw quotes Robert Bivins who administers the GED tutoring program for Cleveland’s Project Learn: “The people who needed to pass this test had to work hard before to do it, but now we’ve made it much harder and there is no good reason for that. We tell people in jail they need to get a GED while they are in there, but then we set it up so that can’t accomplish what we told them they need to do. Think of the message that sends… You can’t set people up for failure, but we are freezing a large portion of people out of the process right now.”
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, an agency that McGraw describes as working “with states to get more of the poor and disadvantaged into college” worries that the new test has dramatically reduced the number of people who will attempt to find a path into work through education: “What I’ve noticed more than anything is that the participation rates are shockingly low this year over previous years, so the word has gotten out that it is extremely hard. The way I see it, they have effectively gutted the GED program by these changes…. Adult students who have been out of high school for a while aren’t passing this test.”
In their important 2008 history of the role of American education in labor economics, The Race between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, two Harvard economists describe six core virtues of American education: “By virtues, we mean a set of characteristics that originated in basic democratic and egalitarian principles and that influenced the educational system. The virtues… include public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system. These virtuous features are summarized by the word ‘egalitarianism…'” (p. 130) “The U.S. educational system has been open and forgiving in comparison with other educational systems. By ‘open’ we mean that almost all children could attend school. By ‘forgiving’ we mean that one could often advance to higher grades and institutions even if one failed to perform adequately in a lower grade.” (p. 154) “An early outcome of the virtues was the rapid diffusion of schooling and educational institutions throughout much of the young nation… The primary reason that we deem these features virtues is that they produced a relatively high level of schooling and educational attainment.” (p. 130)
Since the passage in 2002 of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, our society has become infused with more testing at every level. Many have come to worship rigor for its own sake regardless of the collateral damage, especially if those left out are already marginalized and invisible in our increasingly stratified society. It is worth remembering that cut scores on standardized tests do not reflect some kind of scientific calculation. Tests are always constructed by human beings making choices about what is important and what it means to pass or fail. It is easy enough to make tests so hard that virtually nobody can pass them, so difficult that eventually people give up and stop trying.
The economists Goldin and Katz describe the open and forgiving education system in which our society has taken pride for more than a century. Most of us believe in opportunity, and we say we think a second chance is a good thing. We ought to stop and take notice as America veers away from the society we imagine ourselves to be.