In a book on expanding opportunity in higher education, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Mike Rose describes the GED exam and the students in adult education programs who have come back to school to try to improve their education and their credentials: “I am struck by the diversity of backgrounds and skills in this single room. People with postsecondary degrees from another country and a man who has barely been inside a schoolhouse. People in their early twenties, a lifetime in front of them, and a woman with grandchildren, who comes to school to keep her mind alert. People navigating cultures and languages. People starting over.” (p. 39)
Rose published Back to School in 2012, right after for-profit Pearson, the mega-publisher of textbooks, standardized tests, and test-related curricula, joined with the American Council on Education to take over the GED program but before January of 2014, when a new GED test—much harder, much more expensive, and administered on-line—was launched. The GED has for decades been the way so many people without a high school diploma have been able to climb back on the path to employment or further education.
Pearson’s partner in the new GED Testing Service, the American Council on Education (ACE) is an organization of college presidents, and it is presumably with ACE’s encouragement that the new, revised GED exam emphasizes college readiness despite that many who aspire to pass the GED seek job placement or technical education. The new GED is based on the new Common Core standards, which emphasize analysis, higher-order thinking, and more advanced math. This blog described the new GED and even a sample of one of the impossible-seeming questions in a post last January. That post linked to an in-depth report about a collapse across the United States in the rate of passage of the GED, a sudden drop in scores that accompanied the re-design of the test. Passage in 2014 dropped by 90 percent: “The numbers are shocking: 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.”
The problems have continued. Here is a July 2015 report from the Columbus Dispatch: “GED Testing Service, a for-profit partnership that has the monopoly on the high-school equivalency degree in Ohio, is on pace to award about 3,700 GED certificates this year, according to the Ohio Department of Education. That is less than a quarter of the 16,500 Ohioans on average who got GEDs each year between 2000 and 2013. As bad as that 2015 number is, it’s up substantially from 2014, when only 2,164 Ohioans passed the test, down from more than 15,000 the previous year. That drop coincided with GED Testing Service’s tripling the price of the test to $120, charging for practice tests for the first time, and selling practice materials on its website.”
Last month, Kentucky Public Radio reported a similar drop in the passage rate: “The number of Kentuckians passing the General Educational Development test, or GED, has dropped by 85 percent in the last two years, according to the state’s adult education program. During the 2013 fiscal year, 8,890 students earned GED diplomas. The current fiscal year ends this month. So far the state has issued only 1,351 diplomas.”
Some states are adopting competing tests to certify high school equivalency. The Dispatch and Kentucky Public Radio reporters note that Indiana, West Virginia, New York and Illinois have adopted other tests including the Test Assessing Secondary Completion from McGraw-Hill, and Hi-SET from the Electronic Testing Service.
But the real issue, apart from the increased cost and the difficulty for many students of taking the GED examination on-line, has more to do with what the new test means about our culture than it does about the test provider. In a 300 page commentary, American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy, Michael Moe of GSV Asset Management judges human worth in purely economic terms. He describes, “a world where knowledge and education are the fundamental currency needed to participate in a global marketplace… ” (p. 17) In a society that has come to trust ever tougher competition and rewards for a few winners, many value tougher standards in the GED program and every other educational setting, whatever the consequences for individuals. The worth of education has been broadly redefined in merely economic terms without any concern for expanding opportunity or for what it means to be educated.
In Back to School, Mike Rose reflects in a very different way on the importance of adult education: “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, and, not infrequently, coming out of prison. When these people re-enter 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 and they slowly build occupational skill or gain proficiency in English and math or get interested in psychology or political science or literature—as they begin to experience this kind of achievement—then you start to see the transformation… They begin to draw a bead on the future.” (Back to School, pp. 47-48)
And what about the practical repercussions of the new GED for the people who need to pass the test to get a job or for admission to a technical program? John Schlueter, the coordinator of the GED program at Prairie State College, a community college south of Chicago, Illinois, describes what the new GED has meant to one of his students: “Every week I say hello to a student I had in a class and who has been taking classes with us for the past year and a half. This student knows exactly what he wants to do: get his commercial driving license (we have a great program on campus) and find employment driving trucks. He’s hard-working, smart, punctual, and respectful… There is only one thing standing in his way: the GED exam. He took the exam the year before it drastically changed in 2014, and he passed every subject but missed passing the essay portion by just a few points. When the exam changed to supposedly align better with college-readiness standards, the sections he passed no longer carried over, and he had to start from scratch. But the new test is harder—a lot harder—and much more expensive, going from $50 to $120. The higher cost is especially daunting considering that the majority of students in such programs have low incomes. I have confidence he’ll pass it eventually, but every semester that he’s delayed, so are his earnings and his future….”