One year after the launch of a major overhaul of the GED exam — the first since 2002 — the high school equivalency program has seen a sharp drop in the number of people who took and passed the test, according to local and state educators and the organization that runs it. In addition, at least 16 states have begun offering or plan to offer new, alternative tests.
Combined, these changes represent a dramatic shift in the equivalency landscape dominated by the GED since its inception during World War II.
Last January, the GED test moved to the computer. It also got more expensive, by most accounts more difficult — and, for the first time, the program is being run on a for-profit basis. The new GED Testing Service is a joint venture between the American Council on Education, the nonprofit that has run the program since it began, and the education company Pearson.
What effect did all of these changes have on test takers?
"Our number of graduates for this last calendar year has dropped about 85 percent," says Myles Newman, who helps coordinate GED preparation for one school district in Lexington County, S.C. States including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Colorado are reporting large drops as well.
Nationally, the GED Testing Service says while it has seen a "sizable decrease," it won't be able to release final 2014 numbers for several weeks. But here's what we know so far:
-- In 2012, a total of 401,388 people passed the GED test.
-- In 2013, people rushed to take the old test in its final year, creating a bump: A total of 540,535 people passed.
-- How many earned a GED credential in 2014? In the general population: 58,524.
This drop, first reported in the Cleveland Scene newspaper, is dramatic, but that 2014 number is also incomplete. It excludes state and federal prisoners — thousands of whom pass the test in a typical year (although, in the past, many fewer than 100,000). It also excludes those taking alternative tests, though that number, too, is not yet large.
The decrease is considerable and, combined with the development of those alternative tests and some states' decision to abandon the GED entirely, represents a challenge to the exam's decades-long dominance in the field of high school equivalency.
Origins 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 created the GED in 1942.
Over the decades, the use of the GED credential expanded. 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.
Over the years the test has been updated five times, and those upgrades commonly resulted in drops in participation the following year. The last update, in 2002, resulted in a one-year drop of 53 percent in test takers.
But this time around, some adult educators are reacting strongly to changes that they say create unnecessary barriers for people who are already struggling: the test's increased difficulty, higher cost and computer requirement.
"Teachers are telling us that the new test is virtually impossible for students to pass," says David Spring, who with his wife, Elizabeth Hanson, runs the website Restore GED Fairness in Washington state. Both are educators who have spent years helping people prepare for the GED.
Nicole Chestang, a vice president at the American Council on Education, says that the new test is more difficult by design and that the upgrade was needed to keep the exam current — for students and for employers who rely on the GED as a measure of what they can expect.
"I think we're doing people a real disservice if we don't raise the bar so they are positioned for today's jobs," Chestang says. She says it's computer-based because that's what's required in most workplaces. And, in terms of added cost, she notes that some states will help cover the expense of the test.
Spring and Hanson are supporters of a different equivalency test, called the High School Equivalency Test, or HiSET, produced by the nonprofit ETS and the University of Iowa. The HiSET is now coming into use in 12 states.
McGraw-Hill produces yet a third test, called TASC, which has been approved now in nine states. Thirty-four states still offer only the GED.
Because of the way they're designed, plus their lower cost and paper-and-pencil delivery options, "HiSET and TASC are much fairer to students," Spring argues.
Jason Carter, the national director for HiSET, says ETS created its test in response to concerns by many states about the GED's for-profit shift. He says preliminary estimates are that 30,000 to 35,000 people passed the HiSET in 2014.
Nevada offered all three options last year. There, the cost of the GED was $95 and the TASC and HiSET tests were $65.
"We just wanted to have choice," says Jeff Wales of the Nevada Department of Education. "Many of our clients prefer paper, and we wanted to make sure that everyone had an equal opportunity to succeed."
He adds that the state saw "low numbers of test takers [in 2014] across all tests. The year was a lot of transition — for test centers, school districts and test takers."
Chestang acknowledges that 2014 was a "rocky time" for states and the GED but says she she's worried about these new alternatives.
"The thing that concerns me about having lots of tests out in the marketplace is that it creates a lot of confusion for test takers," she says. "And I also want to make sure that we're all setting the same standard for people."
For 72 years, the GED was the only game in town, no matter which town you lived in. Then, in a matter of one year, 10 states dropped it.
The days of one monolithic high school equivalency test are over. And that means, for the first time, someone in Boston or Baton Rouge who's hoping for a second chance won't have to pass the GED.
NPR's Elissa Nadworny contributed to this report.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One year ago, the GED got a makeover. That famous high school equivalency test was rewritten to line up with the Common Core State Standards. The new test has to be taken on computer, and the price jumped. This time last year, critics worried that lots of Americans would give up on the new GED test because they couldn't afford it or pass it. As Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team reports, they were right.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: To understand the new GED, you have to understand what it used to be - an American institution born of patriotism and pragmatism.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: These are the guys who helped win it for us against the Nazis, and the entire nation welcomes them home.
TURNER: The GED began during World War II to help returning U.S. troops into the work force. It quickly became an important alternative for veterans and nonveterans alike looking for work without a diploma. The GED became a household name - the go-to test, no matter where you lived. It's been updated, but not often, just five times. And no one seemed to make much of the first four. It's the last update for 2014 that's kicked up a storm.
ELIZABETH HANSON: Right now, all it's doing is destroying lives.
TURNER: Elizabeth Hanson teaches at a community college in Shoreline, Washington and spent several years teaching GED courses. She made up her mind about the new test after she took a practice version.
HANSON: Lo and behold, master's degree teacher of 30 years, I couldn't pass the test.
TURNER: Hanson's also angry because in many states, the price has roughly doubled, and the GED is no longer run solely by the nonprofit American Council on Education. For the first time, the ACE teamed up with for-profit testing giant Pearson and created the GED Testing Service, all of which raises the question, why?
NICOLE CHESTANG: The education system has heaped a lot on the GED test.
TURNER: That's Nicole Chestang, a vice president at ACE. She says the big reason behind their update was that too many people who had passed the old test were approaching employers and saying...
CHESTANG: I've got a credential here that says I'm prepared, and for those same employers to say no you're not.
TURNER: In short, she says, their old test just wasn't an accurate measure of what today's high school graduates know or need to know. But that argument, along with the price hike, has been a tough sell. The GED Testing Service admits it saw a sizable decrease in 2014 in both test-takers and graduates. Miles Newman helps coordinate GED prep for one school district in Lexington County, South Carolina.
MILES NEWMAN: Our number of graduates for this last calendar year has dropped about 85 percent.
TURNER: Eighty-five percent, and it's a similar story in many other places. Newman and the folks behind the GED say part of that drop was to be expected because lots of people afraid of the new test rushed to take the old one. But Newman believes the drop is mostly because this new test is harder. He supports the idea of raising standards, but worries about the people who won't pass this new test or, worse yet, won't even bother trying.
NEWMAN: Are we going to, like, drop back now and say, OK, we made a big mistake and the GED is too tough, so we're going to make it easier, now? (Laughter).
TURNER: That's probably not going to happen. But what is happening is that states, including South Carolina, are turning to new competitor tests that have popped up, giving test-takers a choice. Ten other states have replaced the GED entirely. And that means for the first time, someone in, say, Boston or Baton Rouge hoping for a second chance on a high school equivalency diploma won't have to pass the GED. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.