Pearson’s Operation of the GED: Kicking Down the Very People Who Need a Leg Up

Alarmed by what the corporate education giant Pearson has done since 2014 to undermine educational opportunity, Policy Matters Ohio just published a report by Hannah Halbert, GED Collapse in Ohio: State Needs Launch Pads Not Barricades.  Halbert explains: “The number of Ohioans who pass the high school equivalency exam has plummeted since Pearson VUE, the world’s largest private for-profit education corporation, took over testing, tripled the cost, changed the test and created other barriers… After the Pearson changes were implemented, the number of Ohioans passing the GED… plunged by 85 percent, from more than 14,800 a year on average between 2009 and 2013 to fewer than 2,200 in 2014.”

After watching GED scores across the United States collapse in each of the past two years since it took over the GED program, Pearson just reset the passing score to lower the bar for passage.  And it made the new easier cut score retroactive for the two years since it took over the design and administration of the test.  Cut scores on standardized tests are, after all, not scientifically calibrated but are instead set by the corporations and politicians who design and implement the tests.  Pearson’s recalibration of the passing score demonstrates that Pearson is worried about the number of  states that have chosen to abandon the GED for tests being proffered by other corporations, tests that do not pose so many barriers to test takers.  In Ohio, Pearson’s recalibration has helped some test takers, but it hasn’t changed the overall GED test score collapse: “A recent change in GED scoring increased the total number of Ohioans who passed the GED over the last two years by 1,425.  Even with this change, we estimate that there are about 22,000 fewer Ohioans with an equivalency degree than we would have had….” under the old GED exam used before Pearson took over.

If you consider the group of people likely to try for high school equivalency by taking the GED test—people who have dropped out of high school—people who are likely to be poor and may be unemployed—people who may struggle to buy a computer and afford on-line access, you might wonder if Pearson is either ignorant about its target population or just, for some perverse reason, making it hard for them to use its product: “The changes Pearson made include tripling the cost of the test from $40 to $120, requiring test-takers to use a a computer, testing more analytical and complex skills, and requiring online registration with an e-mail address and a credit card.  In a perverse way, the changes create huge barriers for the very population that needs a high school equivalency.”  Halbert describes what would appear to be Pearson’s elitist bias: “Some assume that the whole world is perpetually wired into the Internet and that everyone has an e-mail address and credit card.  But that ignores the reality of how many people without a high school education live.  Census data show that about 47.9 percent of Ohioans without a high school diploma or equivalent have no Internet service or no computer at all.  The FDIC estimates that about 50.9 million American adults don’t have bank accounts, meaning that they have to resort to alternative financial services like payday lenders to obtain services like credit… Many low-income Ohioans without a high school degree lack computer access and skills.  Now, to get into a technical program that would help them obtain those skills and increase their income, they must pass a relatively expensive, computerized test.”

Why do people who have dropped out of high school decide to try for a GED credential? According to Halbert, nearly two-thirds of Ohioans who sign up for the test said they did so to further their education and half said they did so in hopes of finding better jobs: “Most respondents who selected education were taking the test to enter a two-year program…. Another 19.6 percent hoped to go to a technical or trade school.  Among those motivated by employment, 44.5 percent were seeking a better job, more than 8 percent were trying to get a first job, and 11.9 percent were trying to keep a job or fulfill a job requirement.”

In an obvious mismatch, however, Pearson’s new GED is coordinated with the new Common Core Standards that emphasize college readiness and more critical thinking.  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.

Policy Matters suggests that like the 21 other states that now offer alternatives to the Pearson test, Ohio should consider switching GED providers.  Alternatives  mentioned are a test from the Educational Testing Service and another from CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Policy Matters concludes by reminding Ohioans that funding for the network of programs that help candidates prepare for the GED has also been reduced in recent state budgets along with cuts to a range of programs to support vulnerable citizens : “Under this (Kasich) administration Ohio has cut taxes by more than $17,000 each year for the top 1 percent of Ohioans, while increasing taxes for the 20 percent with the lowest income.  Rather than prioritizing tax cuts, the state could invest in our system and put thousands of Ohioans on a path toward a career, helping employers meet their talent needs, and enriching communities across the state.”

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