Perspectives: New GED exam comes with hefty price tag and barriers to success for many

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 04:29 PM

Faye Alston spent eight years studying for the General Educational Development exam, better known as the GED.

“I knew it was gonna be a struggle because I quit school 40 years ago, at age 17,” said Alston. “But I wanted an education.”

First developed in 1942 for soldiers returning home who had enlisted prior to completing high school, the GED is the most widely accepted high school equivalency credential in the nation and a requirement for those who are without a high school diploma and wish to pursue a postsecondary education.

But big changes to the exam will make it more difficult and costlier to obtain the GED, creating considerable obstacles for low-income, low-skilled adult learners wishing to improve their chances for a better life.

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Alston, who grew up in Siler City, began taking GED classes in 2005, while she was employed at UNC-Chapel Hill as a housekeeper.

“When I started, I started with reading and writing,” said Alston. “That was easy for me because I loved to read and write.”

Alston took GED classes at UNC through a free benefit provided to the school’s housekeepers made possible by the Orange County Literary Council. The Literary Council also provides free county-wide tutoring work to improve skills in English, math, basic computer skills and GED and citizenship-test preparation for adults in the county who need assistance to attain their employment, educational, and personal/family goals.

The GED comprised five subject areas when Alston began working in 2005 toward obtaining the credential: reading and writing, social studies, science and math. Social studies and science were a breeze for Alston, too – but when she began studying for the math component of the exam, she ran into some trouble.

“I worked on math for about a year. But I was ashamed I didn’t know as much as everyone else, so I didn’t ask a lot of questions, and I acted like I knew what I was doing,” said Alston.

It took Alston eleven attempts at the math portion of the exam to succeed – she finally passed in 2013.

Lucky for her, Alston only had to pay $7.50 in order to take all portions of the exam – even the math, which she had to take a number of times.

But if she hadn’t passed before January 1, 2014, Alston would have to start all over again with the GED – facing higher costs and a more difficult exam to pass.

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On January 1, 2014, makers of the GED (the non-profit American Council for Education) announced a new public-private partnership with Pearson VUE and also introduced a new version of the exam. Big differences? The new GED exam will only be computer-based and it will cost significantly more than its predecessor.

The former five sections of the exam have been rolled up into four -- literacy, math, science and social studies -- and come with a price tag of $120, not including fees for re-testing.

North Carolina used to be one of the best places in the country to take the GED. The state used to heavily subsidize the cost of the exam, according to Steve Duncan, director of the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) at Wake Technical Community College.

“For years, North Carolina subsidized the cost of the GED, providing it to anyone at a total cost of $7.50,” said Duncan.

“Then it went up to $25 in 2006, and $35 shortly after that.”

HEP serves migrant farmworkers and their families, providing free GED instructional classes through a federal grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

The people HEP serve -- low-income, minority populations that typically lack basic computer skills and are English language learners -- will be at a considerable disadvantage with the new GED.

“First, there are no textbooks in Spanish yet. They were supposed to come out in January, and now we are hearing March,” said Maria Lafuente Fisher, also of HEP.

And there will no longer be a gatekeeper component to the GED. Previously, those wishing to take the GED needed a referral from a community college or another approved referral agency in order to sign up.

“In the past we could monitor progress and know when students will be ready to test, ensuring that students wouldn’t waste their money and wouldn’t set themselves up for failure,” said Duncan. “Now there’s no gatekeeper -- students can just sign up online for the GED and test at an examination site whenever they think they are ready.”

The fact that the GED is only computer-based now is especially problematic.

“You need a computer and computer skills in order to be able to pass the GED, and that’s a big issue with our students. Things like scrolling, tabs, windows -- all of that they’ll have to be familiar with in order to be successful. So we’ll need to assess and remediate those areas as well,” said Duncan.

The rigor of the new GED is greater and the content of the exams is aligned with Common Core Standards. And the credential will include two tiers of certification – high school equivalency and college/career readiness.

“While it is still unclear how the two levels will be viewed in the labor market and how the readiness format will connect to postsecondary access, it is clear that test preparation programs will need to be overhauled in an extremely short amount of time,” according to a brief by the North Carolina Justice Center’s Sabine Schoenbach.  There’s also concern that those who don’t secure the college/career readiness stamp of approval will feel less inclined to seek out postsecondary education.

Finally, if a person had passed some components of the GED, but not all, in 2013 or before – then he or she will have to start over from scratch now that January 1 has come and gone. All partial passers of the former GED will be required TO scrap those scores and take all four components of the new GED -- and pay the higher cost.

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“I heard there were changes coming,” said Alston, “and I was so afraid I wasn’t gonna pass. I thought have to get out of here before these changes, so I worked really hard.”

When she heard the test was computerized, she didn’t even want to think about it.

“I don’t know if I would have been successful, to tell you the truth,” said Alston of the prospect of not being able to take a paper and pen version of the GED.

Alston is now taking classes at Durham Tech and UNC.

“I am taking Spanish class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at UNC and I’m taking integrated reading and writing as well as some science labs at Durham Tech. I want to go for my associate’s degree,” said Alston.

Ultimately, she’d like to be a teacher at a daycare or at a K-12 school.

“That’s a couple years ahead of me. But I love working with kids. And most important, I want to be a motivator for my daughter. I want her to say ‘my mommy did it, and I can do it too. I can do this if my mom went back to school at age 50-something.”

NCPolicywatch education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or at lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com.