The Giant GED Gap

Nearly 500,000 fewer Americans passed the GED in 2014 after a major overhaul to the test. Why? And who's left behind?

click to enlarge Sy Ohur (right) studies with a tutor at the East End Adult Education Center in the East End.
Sy Ohur (right) studies with a tutor at the East End Adult Education Center in the East End.

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y Ohur pores over an article with a tutor at the East End Adult Education Center on Eastern Ave. Before going to work at the Hyatt downtown Monday through Thursday, he shows up here to work on English and other subjects he must master to pass Ohio’s General Educational Development (GED) test. It’s a challenge, especially after recent changes to the test and the way it is administered. 

Ohur would like to get a diploma so he can get a better job at Hyatt — a supervisor’s role, maybe, instead of his current job helping set up for conventions at the hotel. He would also eventually like to go to college so he can get back into pharmacy work, which he did in his native Sudan before coming Cincinnati as a refugee in 2004. Ohur knew very little English when he came to the United States.

“It’s really hard,” Ohur says. “I took the test last year. I’ve taken it two or three times. I passed two subjects, but was waiting to finish the other three. Now they’ve changed it and I have to start from the beginning and take them on the computer. But I have to be patient. I’m not going to give up.”

Ohur isn’t the only one struggling with the changes to the state’s diploma equivalency exam. Tutors say the old test, which had been around since 2002, usually required about six months of studying — three to six hours a week — for a person of average intelligence to have a chance of passing. But the test changes — which implemented the controversial Common Core standards and required the exam be taken online instead of on paper — have made passing the GED test more difficult than anyone can remember.

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. As of mid-December, only about 55,000 had passed nationally in 2014. That is a 90-percent drop off from the previous year.

And there are serious repercussions. As national economic policy is emphasizing more adult education programs, and most jobs (even Walmart shelf stockers) require a high school diploma, the new GED test has pretty much moved the goal posts way back. And that includes the incarcerated, where so many prison re-entry education programs include getting the high school drop-out population to pass the GED test.

•••

Has the GED test always been hard? Some would say so. Especially if you are 20 years or more removed from high school and haven’t thought of quadratic equations or Thomas Jefferson’s verbiage since then. But for those trying to take the GED test today, passage of the high school equivalency is probably less likely than at any other point in the 70-year history of the test.

The changes were made to bring the test up to date, in some people’s eyes. That meant adapting the test to reflect the new Common Core standards being taught in most high schools across the country, doing it online only and not on paper, and requiring more essays. The results have been dramatic:

In 2014, about 350,000 fewer people will earn a GED nationally than in 2012, and close to 500,000 fewer than 2013. The GED accounts for 12 percent of all the high school diplomas awarded each year. In Ohio, 16,092 passed the test in 2012, and 19,976 did so in 2013, but only 1,458 had passed as of mid-December.

Data from the Ohio Department of Education shows that in Hamilton County, only 233 of the 747 people who took the GED in 2014 passed, or just 31 percent. In 2013, 1,538 of the county’s 2,388 test takers passed — 64 percent.

Other states have similar rates. The drop off in Texas was about 86 percent; Florida, about 77 percent; Michigan, about 88 percent.

About 2,100 prisoners in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections earned a GED in both 2012 and 2013. Only 97 have earned the GED in 2014.

Project Learn, a program contracted to tutor inmates in the Cuyahoga County Jail, saw a total of 80 inmates pass the GED test in the past three years, but only one county jail inmate had passed as of mid-December.

The problems are myriad. Many think this test is too hard, too focused on algebra and essays, too much analysis of history instead of knowing historical facts. But the main issue is: Who is the GED test for and what should it measure? Should it be geared toward determining if someone has the skills to make it in college, or the skills necessary to be employed and to move up to a better job? The GED has always struggled with servicing both groups, but right now most GED test teachers feel the test has moved too far into measuring college preparedness.

“Raising the standards was an important thing to do, but without adequate teacher training and a significant investment in current technology, it left adult and correctional education students even further behind in educational achievement,” says Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, the largest prison educational organization in the country. “It is a national tragedy that will continue to have repercussions for years.”

•••

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,” says Robert Bivins, program director of Education at Work at Project Learn in Cleveland.

Local tutors agree.

Adele Craft, executive director of the East End Adult Education Center, says higher educational standards are good. But she says the test is much more difficult and assumes contextual knowledge students may not have.

“It is harder just because it’s asking for different things now,” Craft says. “They used to have you read a paragraph and answer the questions, and the answers were in the questions. Now they’re asking you to read something and you have to know a lot in the background. They’re doing more things like interpreting fiction, which you never had to do before. Some of these people don’t have that background.”

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.

“Almost everyone taking the GED is living in poverty,” Craft says. “That’s why they’re here, a lot of times. They don’t have computers. They have no access.”

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,” says Bivins of Project Learn in Cleveland. “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 nonprofit 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.

The test has changed four times since its inception, the last in 2002. Each time the changes were made to keep up with changes in education. Sometimes the changes meant more math, sometimes more essay writing, mainly because college educators wanted some assurances that their GED students would have the necessary skills to handle the rigors of the post-secondary world. And over the years, the GED was overseen by the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents college presidents and administrators.

As part of the changes this time around, the test was developed and overseen by a joint venture between the nonprofit ACE and the for-profit testing company Pearson VUE through a company called GED Testing Service.

The joint venture was very late in getting teaching materials to programs for student preparation, with many centers not receiving them until November 2013, just two months before the new test took effect.

Though some states have voucher grants of $40 for first-time takers (Ohio participates in this), most test takers will pay $120 for the new test, up from $40 previously. A small sample test is offered online for free, but to get a larger sample of questions (about half the size of the actual test, containing four sections), prospective testers pony up $6 per section. So in theory, it could cost a student $168 to take two sample tests and the actual test one time.

Some places, like the East End Adult Education Center, have found workarounds for the fees. People don’t have to pay to come to the center, which runs on grants and fundraising. They also have a scholarship fund to pay all or part of the $40 test fee.

Director Craft says the previous lower fee was often hard for the center’s students to come up with, let alone the higher fee instituted last year.

“I called the state and had a fit because they moved it from $40 to $120,” Craft says. “We couldn’t get the $40 from them, how are going to get $120?”

Craft says after a number of other people complained as well, an agreement was reached. If you come through a center like East End and test at an 11th or 12th grade level, the state will waive the $80 fee increase.

“We tell our students right away you don’t have to pay that,” Craft says. But she adds that most people who want to take the GED don’t know about that deal and are likely to simply sign up for the test without going through an adult education center.

The higher costs and online-only service represent the need to offer better and quicker responses to how the student has done on the test, according to C.T. Turner, GED Testing Service spokesman. “We heard from testers that there wasn’t a flexibility under the old system that would let the test takers know with certainty what progress they were making,” he says. “This system of doing it online lets them know instantly what they got right and what they missed and what they need to do to improve.”

As far as getting rid of the pen-and-paper approach, Turner says the decision “was made to make sure those passing the test had the computer skills which reflected college and career readiness.” But when asked why the test seemed to not be testing technology knowledge, but use of a keyboard and mouse, which may be far less used with the advancement of touch screen technology and voice activation, Turners says, “We are measuring what a student who graduates from high school now has to be proficient in, and knowing how to use a computer is part of that.”

And that is a big part of the controversy over this test. In the past, the GED had not been strictly a measure of what a high school grad’s cognitive skill set was from that time period, but leaned a bit toward crediting the older test taker’s life experience. But those defending the changes said over and over that to make the GED easier than what the high school student needed to know to graduate would be “unfair” to those high school students, along with causing undue remedial classes if the GED passers wanted to go to college.

Administrators argue you can’t just give a GED to a person who shows up to classes for a number of months and then can sign their name in crayon.

•••

The Common Core standards are the driving force behind the new GED test’s content changes and are somewhat difficult to explain. For years, many college educators thought that high schools were not preparing their graduates well enough for college curricula, and there was a movement to rectify that. In the end, basically, rote learning was replaced by analysis, placing a greater importance on why facts were relevant and how they could be used, not what they were.

They first began getting traction in the mid-1990s among university presidents who thought their freshman students were ill prepared. By the late 2000s, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates started championing educational changes through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Some 44 states eventually adopted the standards, though a dozen or so are now rethinking their educational policies, sometimes by way of reflection on how the state has performed, sometimes by way of conservative backlash at what the fringes claim as lefty conspiratorial endeavors into schools.

Along the way, the thought process went like this: If the country were to change what students were expected to know upon graduation from high school, then the test that allowed dropouts to graduate must also reflect those changes. The problem in that assessment: Only 40 percent of those who passed the GED went on to any higher educational pursuits, and, of those, only a small fraction (single-digit percentages according to most studies) attended college for more than a year. The vast majority of those taking the GED were doing so for employment opportunities.

Measuring job-ready skills was an afterthought in the Common Core standards from the beginning. “The workplace” aspect of the standards is only mentioned at the end of the executive summary in a cursory manner in an essay called “The American Diploma Project,” one of the early Common Core studies published in 2004:

“States have developed high school assessments without much regard for what colleges need, and colleges use admissions and placement exams that are disconnected from the curriculum students study in high school. The result is too many tests and a mixed set of messages to students, parents and teachers about which ones matter most. States must streamline their assessment systems so that high school graduation and college admissions and placement decisions are based on student achievement of college and workplace readiness content.”

A heavily shared Facebook post earlier this year from a frustrated parent illustrated the controversy over the new standards. The father published a picture of a homework assignment for his fifth-grader: Subtract 316 from 427. Instead of stacking the two numbers on top of each other and subtracting vertically to reach 111, the assignment wanted the elementary school student to use a linear approach, where the student would get the answer by subtracting 100 from 427 three times, then 10 once, then one six times.

The father wrote to the teacher that, as a frustrated parent and electrical engineer, he couldn’t get the right answer using the Common Core approach. “In the real world, simplification is valued over complication,” he added.

GED tutors and teachers echo his sentiment — that the new standards overcomplicate the test. The math portion, for example, used to include fairly straightforward questions without dipping into wordy presentations and ventured little beyond basic algebra. The new test emphasizes more algebra and geometry, as well as polynomials, graphing and quadratic equations. A question from a sample test illustrates the verbose nature of the problems:

Cilia are very thin, hair-like projections from cells. They are 2.0 x 10-4. What is the maximum number of cilia that would fit side by side — without overlapping — across a microscope slide that is 25 millimeters wide?

a. 8.0 x 10-6

b. 1.25 x 10-3

c. 8.0 x 102

d. 1.25 x 105

“The old test was about 25 percent algebra,” says Dan McLaughlin, the program director at Seeds of Literacy. “The new test is about 55 percent algebra, and there is very little basic math on it. Even our tutors have had a hard time with some parts of the math test.”

Local tutors echo that sentiment.

“Most of my tutors can’t pass it without studying,” Craft says. “And they’re college graduates.”

The science section pushes students further, too. One sample question asks the test taker to interpret, via an equation, whether energy is stored, created or produced when glucose, water, oxygen and carbon dioxide are combined. The old test, McLaughlin says, required the students to know some of the elements on the periodic table, but did not have them analyze how the element reacted with each other.

And in the writing portion of the test, the previous test asked for one personal essay, the topic of which might be: “Who is someone you think is successful and why?” The purpose of the essay was to see if the respondent knew how to put nouns and verbs and prepositions together in proper order. In other words, it tried to determine if could you understand what they were saying, but it didn’t really care about the content.

But the new test flips that around. There are now two essays, and they are graded not on grammar but on reasoning. For example, one of the sample questions in the language portion of the test asks the tester to read two essays on daylight saving time — one in favor, one against — and then write an essay about which one is better and why. Another example is writing an essay about the importance of the concept of “sustainability” within the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Another asks a test taker whether a school’s decision to expel a student refusing to salute the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance is covered by freedom of religion or freedom of speech, and how Thomas Jefferson’s writing fits into the question at hand. The essay will be judged, in part, on “your own knowledge of the enduring issue and the circumstances surrounding the case to support your analysis.”

And again, grading is focused on analysis and interpretation rather than sentence structure, and the GED website says a passing essay might exhibit “draft writing.”

“We do not hold test-takers to a standard of very formal conventions at all,” it says. “Rather, we understand that they have minimal time for proofreading and we can accept diction that is significantly more casual than, for example, what might be required on a resume cover letter. The language requirements are not as high as ‘Edited American English.’ ”

So the test measures knowledge of how many tiny cell hairs can fit on a slide, the energy production of an equation, Thomas Jefferson’s analysis of a West Virginia court case and interpretation of the concept of environmental sustainability. All in four test sections that have to be completed in about seven hours. On a computer. By people who may have limited computer skills. And no spell check.

•••

John Eric Humphries, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Chicago and co-author of The Myth of Achievement Tests (University of Chicago Press, 2014) says the key warning sign is not how few are passing, but how few are taking the new test. “The most shocking thing is that people taking it has plummeted,” he says. “And we have to find out the reason for that. Is it the computer skills needed, the cost, or the content, or a combination?”

Humphries thinks the problem is not so much the Common Core standards used for the questions, “because this is a fair test of what graduates of high school should know, and if that is how we determine math or English or computer skills, the GED should be a reflection of that. Over time the GED instructors and the students will catch up with that.”

“But the real problem is that we use the same assessment for a job parking cars as we do for getting into college with the current GED,” Humphries says. “Those are completely different tasks and different questions we should be using. But we use the same test for both.”

There has been movement through the years to create different tests to measure different abilities, and the notion of a GED for college admissions and GED for work qualifications has been bandied about. Ten states have either opted out of the Pearson test and offer one of two competing tests, or offer all three. Ohio may move to another test, according to Gary Cates, senior vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, which administers the test in Ohio, because of the huge drop off in people passing the test this year.

“The numbers are not good, and we recognized going in we would have some issues,” Cates says. “The test is harder because it was designed for the Common Core standards, but we also recognize that the GED is important for people to keep or get a job. We will keep all the options we have open.”

And a part of the assessment is the cost. The U.S. Department of Education spends about $564 million a year on Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) programs. Ohio gets about $15 million of that federal money, and adds about $7 million in state funding to the adult education programs. Ohio does not keep track of how much of the $22 million is spent specifically on GED teaching programs, but it does make one wonder about how the public investment is being served by fewer GEDs being earned because of the changes.

If the state is spending $22 million on adult education programs and 20,000 Ohioans get a GED, that might be a good investment. But spending $22 million and getting 2,000 GEDs might not be.

In addition, studies have shown that prison recidivism rates decrease by about 30 percent if the incarcerated take educational programs while locked up. And for every dollar spent on education, the savings is $4 to $5 in future costs because they stay out more.

“We have seen that doing education programs for those in prison is a good investment, but if they aren’t seeing a reasonable payoff to their efforts, there is a real danger that they aren’t going to perhaps buy into other changes they need to make,” says Dr. Lois Davis, senior researcher at research organization RAND Corp., who has studied education programs in prisons.

“If the state of Ohio goes from more than 2,000 prisoners getting a GED each year down to a few hundred, there are just going to be many problems that the state has to deal with,” Davis says. “The numbers are shocking; I am surprised the prison officials aren’t sounding the alarms more on what is happening here.”

The problems for Bivins from Project Learn are that we are pushing a group out of the equation that doesn’t need any more shoving out. “We are telling people they need to have a GED to get a job and they can only apply online with a computer,” he says. “But then those same people are frozen out of the process because they don’t have a computer in the first place. Then we tell them they need to know more algebra to pass the GED test so they do better in college when they have no intention of going to college.

“The people who needed to pass this test had to work hard before to do it, but now we’ve made it much harder and there is no good reason for that. We tell people in jail they need to get a GED while they are in there, but then we set it up so they can’t accomplish what we told them they need to do,” he says. “Think of the message that sends. How do you think you would approach things when you get out? You can’t set people up for failure, but we are freezing a large portion of people out of the process right now.”


* A version of this story originally appeared in Cleveland Scene. CityBeat staff writer Nick Swartsell contributed reporting to this version.

** The 2014 GED statistics are based upon information from the state agencies that oversee the testing, and is the testing data for the year up to late October and early November 2014, depending on the agency.

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