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The big problems with Pearson’s new GED high school equivalency test

Debora Avalos, right, attends a GED class at Del Mar High School Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. Avalos wrote a letter to the governor about the need to increase funding for adult education because she hopes to pursue a career in nursing to help her husband, who works two jobs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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(Update: Response from the GED Testing Service, and a further response from author of post)

For decades the GED exam has been widely known as providing a path to high school equivalency credentials for people who did not earn a traditional high school diploma and needed a second chance in order to get a job.

What may not be so widely known is that what was once a program run by the non-profit American Council for Education is now a for-profit business that includes Pearson, the largest education company in the world.

And the new Pearson-created GED test, which went in effect Jan. 1, 2014, is so much more difficult than the old one that failure rates are astounding. According to the GED Testing Service, there was a 90 percent drop in passing rates in 2014 over the year before — though part of the reason is that far fewer people are taking it.

How hard is the new GED? In this Daily Beast story from  January 2015, Matt Collette, an education reporter and radio producer in New York with a master’s degree from Columbia University, reported that he felt “exhausted and dumb” after taking a practice GED and didn’t do well on most of the four parts. The GED has four content areas: literacy, science, math and social studies.

Why is it so hard?  The new test — which is now administered only on computers — is aligned to the Common Core and has a focus on college readiness rather than workforce readiness.

Because of these problems and the cost  — $120 per test — some states , including New York, have stopped using the GED.

On Tuesday, July 14,  the Texas State Board of Education will host a public hearing on the Texas Certificate of High School Equivalency, which requires passage of the GED. Adult literacy agencies are planning to testify about the growing frustration they see around the GED, and they will argue that adult education students deserve a choice in what high school equivalency exam they may take. Other testing alternatives to the Pearson-developed GEDn include the HiSET and TASC HSE, developed by McGraw Hill.

Here is a post about how the new GED is affecting adult learners, by Amber Sims, vice president of strategic partnerships for the nonprofit LIFT, or Literacy Instruction for Texas, whose mission is to teach adults to read by providing adult basic education, GED and ESL classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sims also serves as an elementary school reading volunteer in the Dallas Independent School District and is a member of collective community work groups, such as Winning in Neighborhoods Strategically and Partners in Progress, focused on improving education and workforce opportunities for South Dallas. She is also a member of The OpEd Project’s Dallas Public Voices Greenhouse.

By Amber Sims

It’s test time. You’re feeling pretty confident about your chances on the GED test and then you get to the following question on the math section:

A 6-foot tall forester standing some 16 feet from a tree uses his digital rangefinder to calculate the distance between his eye and the top of the tree to be 25 feet. How tall is the tree?

You spend nearly five minutes of your 120 minutes for the 46-question math test on this question alone. If you had the answer key, you would know this: “You can’t actually solve this problem, however. Because the rangefinder is measuring the distance from the forester’s eyes and you don’t know how high his eye is above the ground.”

I view this question from an actual full-length practice GED test as evidence that the test-makers have created a GED that is a lot harder than it actually has to be. I can validate this hunch by looking at the dramatic drop in how many people have passed the GED since it was overhauled two years ago.

Last year, of the 248,000 people who took the test, about 86,000 successfully earned a GED, according to data from GED Testing Services. That’s a free-fall compared to the previous year: 800,000 test takers and nearly 560,000 GED recipients in 2013.

Pearson, the British education firm and administer of the new computer-based General Equivalency Diploma (GED), has argued that these numbers are to be expected for a new test. Many GED preparation sites that serve adult learners, including LIFT, the Texas-based literacy organization for which I work, would beg to differ.

LIFT has been working with adults for over 50 years and we saw the number of students pass the GED test fall from 21 in 2013 to just two in 2014. Read GED headlines across the country and you will see a recurring theme: the test is remarkably harder than it used to be.

Test-takers must be able to type 25 words per minute, and do advanced algebra aligning the new test with national core curriculum. Additionally, the cost ballooned from $80 to $120, requires a credit card on file, and there are very few local testing sites. As a result, it is nearly impossible for the average GED student to pass, and it’s becoming even more impossible for us to get the qualified GED-bearing workforce we desperately need across the country.

The Pearson-created test has now made it extremely difficult for low-income Americans to receive a degree needed to fill just about any job in this country — and the implications for America’s identity as “land of of opportunity” are disastrous.

One such person is a client of ours named Karen, who has the intelligence, skills and experience to make her the perfect candidate for a higher-paying “middle skill” job that provides a pathway out of poverty. The mother of two, she is a home healthcare aid worker earning minimum wage. She has been coming to class at LIFT over two years — but she is really struggling with this new test.

In the next few years, cities across the nation will produce thousands of “middle skill” jobs such as coding specialists, nursing assistants, help desk and technology workers earning on average $25 per hour, according to a new report on Dallas-Fort Worth that is part of a series by J.P. Morgan Chase looking at labor market conditions in major U.S. metropolitan areas. The minimum requirement for all of these jobs requires at least a high school degree or equivalent and some additional training or education not greater than a bachelor’s degree.

But to give more low-income, low-skilled a chance to get those jobs, we need to offer new ways to get them the needed credentials — and one way is to give adults something other than the GED to take to earn high school equivalency credentials. In fact, 10 states have already eliminated the GED test and replaced it with other tests; Texas has delayed its decision until June 2016. If we are going to get ready for these jobs, states must act quickly to follow their lead and help add more qualified candidates to the workforce.

Programs  connecting employers and workers are a part of the answer too. For example, Georgia created a program incentivizing employers who help employees pass the GED test with tax deductions. Georgia recognizes access to middle-skill jobs is necessary to create stronger and more self-sufficient families.

Getting there will require a community effort to equip more of our residents through high school diploma and equivalency training programs. Those of us in the adult education field are eager to join the effort to create more work-ready residents. But we must invest more in helping our residents acquire a high school diploma or equivalent in order to meet demands of employers as well as the needs of families.

Here is a response from Randy Trask, president of the GED Testing Service

The recent blog piece from July 9 (The big problems with Pearson’s new GED high school equivalency test) gets several things wrong – both with facts and perceptions. While we welcome a proactive conversation about the new GED® test, we need to ensure that the conversation is respectful of the tens of thousands of adults who have passed the test and the thousands of adult educators who prepare those adults for both the test and life after the test.

It became clear in recent years, based on feedback from employers, colleges, universities, and test-takers, that the value of the GED® credential had eroded. For example, despite the fact that the GED® test was originally created at the request of the United States Armed Forces Institute, the Department of Defense had relegated the old test to a second- or third-class credential for admission. That was a clear signal that employers were looking for a change.

It also became clear that GED® graduates were losing ground in the job market. They were not able to compete with high school graduates for the few low-skill jobs that were available, and less than 12% were earning the career training and college certificates required for the exploding middle-skill job segment. In fact, research from a Nobel Prize winning economist shows that GED® graduates’ earnings and other key outcomes were on par with those of high school dropouts, not high school graduates. However, GED® graduates quickly saw their earnings and job prospects parallel high school graduates when they completed a career or college training program.

Today’s GED® graduates want jobs as firefighters, teachers, EMTs, certified nurse assistants, dental hygienists, and computer programmers, to name a few. These jobs require some college, additional job training, or a specialized certification. Whether it is military service, fast food, retail, hospitality, or healthcare, employers want employees with the skills that the GED® test now measures. Skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and digital literacy.

Additionally, the blog piece relies on incorrect information to further a one-sided view. The example GED® test question is not a question that appears on either the GED® test nor the practice test, and it is not even a question from a reputable study book. The Daily Beast article that the piece references relies on the author’s reaction to a practice test that isn’t an official GED® practice test – though the author leads readers to believe it is. Why go to the trouble of using false questions when authentic GED® test sample questions can be found on the GED® website?

In contrast to suggestions in the piece, I’m pleased to report that the national pass rate for the GED® test over the past six months is approximately 68%. One in four states have pass rates above 70%, and a handful with a pass rate above 80% on the current
exam. To put this in perspective, the national pass rate for the previous test version in 2012 was 69%. In fact, students are performing better on the new GED® test in every subject but Math. They are performing about the same in Math as on the previous GED® test, but they are no longer able to make up for a lower Math score with higher scores in other subjects. You see, in the past, GED® test-takers could hide lower Math scores by applying extra points from other subjects to meet the overall passing score. Since January 2014, students have had to demonstrate the math skills of an average US high school student in order to pass the GED® test and earn a certificate that genuinely indicates equivalency to high school level skills and knowledge. We must ensure our adults have the skills and knowledge of a typical high school graduate to re-instill confidence in the GED® credential, and help prepare more adults for the jobs in today’s workforce.

Throughout the history of the GED® program, each new GED® test series changed to meet new demands for learners. Each time the test changed, learners showed they could meet the demands and employers benefited from a more skilled and prepared workforce. This will be the case again. We already see trend lines that show GED® graduates are entering career and college training programs in higher numbers. We have thousands of success stories directly from GED® graduates – like 52-year-old Sergio from Texas. I encourage you to read some of the amazing stories GED® graduates have shared. They are proud of their achievements, and we should be equally as proud of their accomplishments and future prospects.

The focus shouldn’t be on which test is easier to pass, but rather on how we invest the time, energy, and resources as a nation to help these learners have a real second chance at a better life—not a second chance at poverty.

Randy Trask
President, GED Testing Service

And here is a response to Trask from Amber Sims, author of the post:

While tens of thousands of people have equipped themselves with a GED, tens of thousands more have been locked out of living wage jobs and a better life for themselves and their family because of a test that is weighted against them. Americans want and need additional high school equivalency testing options.

Mr. Trask acknowledges the pass rate is up to 68% over the last six months for the GED, but he does not provide data to counter the 2014 numbers. It should also be noted, this data and other data he lists are not yet on the GED website. As a matter of fact, more than halfway through 2015, GED officials have yet to release official numbers for the 2014 test, and the last press release on their site is Jan. 2015 (aside from the response to this post). If these numbers are going to be used in articles, GED officials should also provide documentation to substantiate these statements and make them readily available.

Mr. Trask remarks that now people are looking to enter professions such as firefighters and teachers—this has always been the case. The real distinction to make is that regardless of what career path people are looking for, the GED or another high school equivalency exam is becoming the baseline requirement. GED officials collect data that concludes some folks are looking for jobs while others are looking to advance their education. GED executives should consider separate tests to distinguish these two, very different segments of its population.

GED officials didn’t address in the response the tremendous cost associated with its nationally accepted test and test preparation, and how it can use it stature to work with states to alleviate costs that are a very real burden for thousands of Americans. While earning a high school equivalency degree is a huge investment, test-takers should not have to decide between taking the test and compromising their quality of life.

LIFT would like to invite Mr. Trask to Texas to meet with some of LIFT’s hardworking students and area employers that need to hire entry level employees so that he can hear their feedback and explain his position to them in person. LIFT will be honored to host the meeting and continue dialogue around this very important subject.

Update: The Texas State Board of Education has decided to send out an RFP bid to consider alternatives to the GED test.