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Is the new GED test an educational improvement or setback?

January 6, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
An overhaul of the GED to meet Common Core standards has made the high school equivalency test more rigorous and more expensive. As a result, fewer people are taking and passing it. Gwen Ifill gets debate from Randy Trask of the GED Testing Service and Lecester Johnson of Academy of Hope about what the changes mean.
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GWEN IFILL: The GED, or General Educational Development diploma, has long been an important high school equivalency credential for those hoping to make up for lost time and lost opportunity.

In a typical year, about half-a-million people pass the exam. But the GED test is changing to meet new academic standards known as Common Core. As a result, fewer people are taking and passing a test that has become more rigorous and expensive. In states like Wisconsin and Rhode Island, the number of those who passed dropped more than 90 percent. In Florida, the number of test takers fell about half.

Is this an improvement or a setback?

We look at that with Randy Trask, president and CEO of the GED Testing Service, and Lecester Johnson, CEO of Academy of Hope, an adult charter school in Washington, D.C.

Randy Trask, is it that the GED test has gotten harder?

RANDY TRASK, GED Testing Service: Well, first off, thank you for having me.

It absolutely is more difficult, but, really, I think your introduction staged it all. It’s a high school equivalency test. And our last test series was tested on high school graduates of 2001. And to the extent that high school graduates have learned a lot in the last 13 years, and they absolutely have, this test is undoubtedly higher — harder.

GWEN IFILL: So, Lecester Johnson, what effect does that actually have on people who want to take the test?

LECESTER JOHNSON, Academy of Hope: It’s much harder for people to pass it.

And one of our biggest concerns with the exam is that we pushed the bar up on the GED, but we didn’t shore up the system where adults are taking classes to study for that exam.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by that?

LECESTER JOHNSON: That, for a long time, adult education has been really under-resourced. It’s primarily run by volunteers. Most of the adult ed programs throughout the country have a strong volunteer core, but we don’t have the resources to provide the kinds of quality education that’s needed, particularly with the changes in this new exam.

GWEN IFILL: So, Randy Trask, tell me what’s changed and why it’s changed. I know what you’re saying, that the standards have changed, and the whole point is that these GED holders be at least as equipped as high school diploma holders.

But what are they doing? Is it a different kind of approach? Is it a different analytical approach to this?

RANDY TRASK: Well, first off, I think our new test is a little bit less about what you and know more about how you apply what you know to demonstrate your problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

And that’s a very different way of approaching testing. The term close reading, for example, comes into play. And I think…

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. You said close reading?

RANDY TRASK: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: Close reading, what’s that?

RANDY TRASK: That’s right, where — where, instead of just looking at a passage and answering questions, you’re required really to read it a couple of times and really be able to understand what you’re reading and begin to demonstrate how you apply it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Lecester Johnson, what’s wrong with that?

LECESTER JOHNSON: I think it’s about why people take the GED.

Most adults who are coming to take the GED exam are looking to get employment. The two reasons are — there is an economic reason. People can’t get even entry-level jobs without something that says that they have a high school diploma. And we also know that the adults that are entering GED programs also come because they can’t help their children with their homework.

So the purpose for many adults coming in is to get a job, and generally it’s an entry-level job. Now, once they’re with us, the goal is to really help them to see that there’s something beyond the GED, going on to college. And this new exam is really about preparing people for post-secondary. And that’s not the majority of the learners that are there.

And it’s now become a barrier to even getting an entry-level job, because it’s going to take a much longer time to do that.

GWEN IFILL: So, Randy Trask, this is not the first time the GED has changed, but what about the idea that you’re dealing with a different population, a population that wants a job, rather than a college degree?

RANDY TRASK: Well, I think what we’re dealing with is that research was beginning to show that our graduates, GED graduates, were starting to fare more similar economically to people that had no high school credential than to high school graduates.

And to extent that we think we can feed families with some of the entry-level jobs that Ms. Johnson is talking about, I think it’s a myth. Our job is to equip these adults with the skills necessary to get into middle-skill jobs, the jobs that are capable of feeding families. And I think our new test is designed to do exactly that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s an interesting point he makes, Lecester Johnson.

LECESTER JOHNSON: Right.

And we’re not saying an entry-level job for a lifetime. For some people, they need to get that job to get money flowing into the household. And coming in to get their GED is a way to do that in the short term.

Long term, we do know that people need to go on beyond that. We also are ignoring the fact that the population of individuals who are in GED programs are not just, you know, the 18- to, you know, 45-year-old. We do have a fair number of people it’s always been their goal to get a high school credential, and they’re not looking to go to college or to pick up a second career.

It really is a personal aspiration, and maybe to get an entry-level job to bring in additional income, but without a high school credential, they can’t do that.

GWEN IFILL: Randy Trask, this also costs more than the previous test. Who does that affect?

RANDY TRASK: Well, there’s no doubt that many of our students are struggling financially.

But the way we look at it now, it’s basically about $30 per test. We have four tests. And the average return to our student is about $9,000 per year once they have completed their test. So, it will be one of the best investments they have made. But that’s really a basic way of looking at it, because, in many states, the test is heavily subsidized.

And in some states, it’s zero. In some states, it’s $10. And so the price is complicated and it varies dramatically.

GWEN IFILL: Do you find that the people you serve, Lecester Johnson, are impeded by the costs?

LECESTER JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely.

Even before the price change, it was a major hardship for adults — for the adults that we’re serving to pay to get — to pay for the GED exam, even at $15. If you’re on a subsidized income, it’s tough to come up with that. And we have always subsidized the subsidy and helped adults to pay for those exams.

GWEN IFILL: Well, this is something we will be watching to see how it unfolds, especially as Common Core takes fuller effect.

Lecester Johnson of the Academy of Hope, Randy Trask with the GED company, thank you both very much.

LECESTER JOHNSON: Thank you.

RANDY TRASK: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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