Last week this blog explored Daniel McGraw’s devastating expose of the new and intentionally very difficult GED exam. McGraw’s article has stimulated additional important coverage of the new GED—managed for-profit by the mega-publisher Pearson in collaboration with the American Council on Education—and what the new management and the new test will mean for high school dropouts who want to work for a credential that will help them find a job or qualify for further training.
Reporting for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Cory Turner shares the history of the GED: “During World War II, vast numbers of young men and women left school before graduation to fight for their country. The government foresaw a need to help them get back on track when they came home. So the American Council on Education (ACE) created the GED in 1942… It never measured up to the high school diploma in terms of cachet or opportunity—and research has long confirmed that it does not translate into comparable earnings. But it came to represent a second chance: for immigrants too old to attend school, for prisoners trying to turn their lives around, for teen parents or anyone whose life has gotten in the way of his formal education.” Five updates have occurred since 1942. In 2011 to create the most recent version, ACE partnered with Pearson, a for-profit company, to manage the test. At the same time ACE has stated that it sought to make the test harder, upgrading the credential to ensure that those who pass are college-ready. The exam is now aligned with the new Common Core Standards.
Turner reports that during 2014, the expense and difficulty of the new GED exam caused ten states to drop the test as their designated measure of high school equivalency . HiSET, the High School Equivalency Test, produced and administered by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service and the University of Iowa, is being adopted by 12 states. A second new test, TASC, from McGraw-Hill (presumably for-profit), has been approved by nine states. Both new tests are cheaper for test takers, and they are administered with paper and pencil, a format preferred by many high school equivalency candidates who may be poor, imprisoned, homeless, and without a computer.
Last week in his blog, UCLA professor Mike Rose explored a range of problems with the new, harder GED exam. Rose examines the topic of adult education and the GED in his 2012 book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. I urge you to read Back to School, but until you have a chance to do it, you should read Rose’s new blog post, in which he revisits much of what he wrote about adult education and the GED in Back to School.
Rose believes making the new test harder merely excludes many of the people for whom it was designed: “For some, the GED certificate already represents a monumental goal, aspiration more dogged and hopeful than many of us can imagine. Some low-skilled adults at this time in their lives do not have the finances, family arrangements, support systems, or work schedules that make any goal beyond passing the exam feasible. If we want them to achieve more, the we need to go way beyond the amping up of a test to provide more employment opportunities, childcare and healthcare and other services—all of which are being cut back rather than enhanced.” At the same time Rose endorses the social as well as personal value of a second chance credential: “The social benefits of Adult Education and other compensatory and second chance programs are particularly salient with people who have been living on the fringe of society: caught up in street life, violent or addicted or both, not infrequently coming out of prison. When these people reenter school, they are often walking right on the line… wanting to make this work, but at times terribly unsure that it will. And as the months progress…. they begin to draw a bead on the future.”
Then there is the issue of the introduction of a new and harder test at a time when neither the states nor the federal government have been investing significantly in either social services or education in our poorest communities: “A number of the adult educators I spoke to expressed a further concern that the increased focus on the enhanced GED, especially in a time of limited—and shrinking—resources, will draw attention and funding away from the other sectors of Adult Ed. When we make programs more demanding, we also have to assure that we have other programs in place to address the needs of those who risk getting left behind. Otherwise, we will continue to help the (relatively) better off at the expense of the truly vulnerable….” Rose acknowledges that we live in a time when competition is a dominant value and we prefer to invest in programs that reward grit. “Hand in glove with the austerity perspective there is a belief, held by many in positions of power, that those in Adult Education who went through American schools blew it the first time through, and why should society pay again for what should have been learned already?… This belief clashes with the notion of the United States as a second-chance society.”
The conversation about the new GED raises broader questions about our society. Is our approach to education encouraging or punitive? Thirteen years after the passage of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, is it possible our society can once again accept—on faith really—that students are benefiting from being in school even if much of the value is intangible and cannot be measured on a standardized test? Do we value education that enhances people’s lives even if it does not lead directly to college and even if it doesn’t directly contribute to a student’s job skills?
And finally: are we willing to pay for educational programs that enrich the lives of our most vulnerable students? This is, of course, a question about taxation. Where are the political leaders who will remind us that the very definition of the social contract assumes that helping individuals get an education enriches us all and contributes to our civic and cultural life?