Failing Grades: Nearly 500,000 fewer Americans passed the GED in 2014 

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click to enlarge GED test changes moved the goal posts back for adult learners - COURTESY
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  • GED test changes moved the goal posts back for adult learners

When it was announced a few years ago that the test would change on Jan. 1, 2014, academic and educational consultants overseeing the new version predicted a slight downturn in passage rates and overall test takers. The reasoning: So many people would try to pass the test in 2013 because any sections they had previously passed wouldn't carry over once the new test began in 2014. This is why the number of people who passed the GED was slightly higher in 2013 than in 2012.

But those who have taught the test for a long time say the new test is so radically different that the dip in passage rate will not be a short blip as students and tutors adjust to the new test. "We are freezing out a large portion of those who would have had a good chance of passing before, and we are doing that because there is a shift in what the test is measuring," said Robert Bivins, program director of Education at Work at Project Learn.

"It used to be that we measured adding and subtracting and what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776," Bivins continued. "But the Common Core standards are not about learning facts; they are about looking at information and then measuring how people understand applications and analysis. For the jail population, which basically dropped out of school in the sixth grade, understanding that is very hard. They don't have any basis for that kind of thinking."

But there is another reason for the small number of people passing the GED test in 2014: Hardly anyone is taking it this year. And that has as much to do with how the test is administered as the content. The previous test was administered with pen and paper, but this version can only be taken on a computer. And here's the kicker: More than half the people in the U.S. who do not have a high school diploma do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home. The same number, not surprisingly, have no internet access either.

Those making less than $25,000 clock in at similar rates regardless of their educational background. So many of those who need a GED most—those without a high school diploma and with a poverty-rate income—do not have a computer or internet access, which puts them far, far behind from the very start for two reasons: It's hard to build keyboard and mouse skills for a timed test without practice, and GED Testing Service (the company that administers the test) makes it maddeningly hard even to print sample questions to study at home.

To get sample tests, students must have access to the internet to take them, pay $6 for each sample test section with a credit card (if their tutoring program won't buy it for them, and most don't), and have an active email account. All of that makes having a computer and internet access paramount to passage.

"We are just finding that students without a computer or credit cards are not able to keep up as well, and in studying for a test like this, it is easy to find reasons to quit," Bivins says. "The way this test has been set up has put barriers in front of people, when we should be doing a test where keeping the goals in front of them is what they see instead of more reasons to quit.

While a certain lack of access makes studying for the GED harder, the content itself makes it even more difficult.

And that raises the question that has dogged the GED test since its inception after World War II: Is the primary purpose of the test to measure a student's college preparedness? Or is it a measure of a dropout's willingness to achieve a goal that makes them more attractive to employers?

In other words, is the GED designed to measure whether a student can handle Jane Austen novels and polynomial equations, or whether that person has the wherewithal to stock shelves at Walmart or hang drywall? The current test suggests it is the former that seems to be more important. And while the old test seemed to have some "just showing up" success rate measurement attached, which in some eyes was a practical way to administer the GED, the new one seems to have none of that.

To put it another way, we all would agree that high school students need to know more before entering college and that sound math and language skills are part of that. But are we going to ace out a whole group of people from getting a GED because some college administrators don't think their incoming students know enough algebra?

"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," says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a non-profit based in Indianapolis that works with states to get more of the poor and disadvantaged into college.

"The way I see it, they have effectively gutted the GED program by these changes they have made," Jones says. "Adult students who have been out of high school for a while aren't passing this test. There needs to be a viable option for older adults to get into college and move up in the job market, and the changes made this year have greatly diminished the GED as a pathway to get to that goal."


The GED test sprang out of World War II. In 1942, when Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, it meant some high school students were put into military service. When the war was over, and the G.I. Bill was passed to pay for veterans' college education, there was a need to figure out what to do with the soldiers whose high school education was interrupted by the war. They knew they couldn't send 21-year-olds who had landed on the beaches at Iwo Jima back to high school to finish up.

So a test was devised, but not one that just measured academic skill sets. It was designed in more practical ways, testing for those non-cognitive or common sense life skills veterans had learned during the war. So it was a mixed bag when it began, attempting to balance and give credit for the knowledge obtained by the test taker outside of school in the real world.

Over time, the GED grew substantially with help from college administrators. It was seen as a second-chance diploma (a Good Enough Diploma, as many joked), and over time, all 50 states accepted the GED test. It grew particularly quickly in the 1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" used GED certification as a way to promote more high school graduates among students who may have had to quit high school and go to work due to poverty issues.

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