On Thursday, an upgraded GED exam and two new competing equivalency tests offered in several states will usher in a new era in adult education testing.
The GED (General Educational Development) exam was created in 1942 to help World War II veterans who dropped out of high school use college benefits offered under the GI Bill. This will be its first face-lift in more than a decade.
The revamped test is intended to be more rigorous and better aligned with the skills needed for college and today's workplaces. The new test will only be offered on a computer, and it will cost more. What consumers pay for the test varies widely and depends on state assistance and other factors.
Even before its launch, officials in many states have balked at the cost increase and at doing away with paper-and-pencil testing. At least nine states - New York, New Hampshire, Missouri, Iowa, Montana, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine and West Virginia - severed ties with the GED test and adopted one of the two new tests that are entering the market. Three others - Wyoming, New Jersey and Nevada - will offer all three. Tennessee will offer the GED test and one other, and other states are expected to decide what to do in the coming months.
That will leave test takers, adult educators and states grappling with new questions: How do you best prepare students for the tests? Which is best, by price and quality? How will the tests be accepted by the military, employers and colleges?
The advent of new tests has sent thousands of test takers rushing to complete sections of the old test they had left incomplete. Once the upgrade happens, the old scores of "partial passers" will no longer be accepted.
"Angst is the good word" to describe this time in adult education, said Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium.
Marty Finsterbusch, president of ValueUSA, a resource organization for adult learners, said he fears there will be a lot of unintended consequences and he's worried about adult learners "getting caught up in the crunch of this." For example, he said, he wonders what will happen to someone who partially passes a test in one state, then moves to another state that doesn't offer that type of exam.
"The system will work itself out eventually, but how many people are going to get hurt in the meantime?" Finsterbusch said.
More than 700,000 people took the GED test in 2012. The average test taker is about 26, and many people seeking a high school equivalency diploma are poor. Nationally, about 40 million American adults lack a high school education.
The GED test has been owned by the nonprofit American Council on Education since its inception.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of ACE, said that when it became clear a new test was needed she wanted it to include materials that would help test takers better prepare for the exam and get linked to resources that would help them plan. To do that ACE enlisted a partner, the for-profit company Pearson Vue Testing. The new test can make results available quickly and collect data that will help teachers better understand how their students did on the exam, so teaching can be adjusted.
The changes to the GED test opened the door for states to begin looking for alternatives, and two vendors responded.
One was Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit that also administers the Graduate Record Examination. It developed a high school equivalency exam called the High School Equivalency Test, or HiSET.
The other was CTB/McGraw-Hill, a for-profit company that is helping states develop assessments of Common Core standards, which put an emphasis on critical thinking and spell out what reading and math skills students should have at each level. It developed a high school equivalency test called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.
Both say they offer a quality test at a lower price. They also allow their tests to be taken without a computer and are open to accepting the scores of GED test takers who have partially passed the old test that recently expired, as long as their state approves.
Amy Riker, national executive director for HiSET, acknowledged that both new vendors have a lot of work to do to educate people about the new exams.
Broad, from ACE, said she likes the idea of competition and said it "will keep everybody on their toes."
In Lowell, Mass., Ben Morrison is a GED test instructor at the United Teen Equality Center, which works with former gang members and others doing on-the-job training and GED test preparation. Morrison said that whatever is ahead, his center will adjust its program because the equivalency diploma is critical for the job prospects and self-confidence of the youth it works with.
"We know that having that credential will make our young people more employable," Morrison said, "so regardless of what test it is that they need to pass to get that credential, I can look at it and pull it apart and figure out how to get them through."
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