From the relentless standardized tests heaped on fourth graders to the terror of the SATs for college-bound high schoolers, high-stakes testing is on everyone’s mind these days. But the highest stakes might be faced, ironically, by the people whom society is quick to write-off as “drop outs.” The GED, the credential that has helped generations of Americans get a second chance at school, is moving further out of this generation’s reach.
For roughly 700,000 people each year, the GED exam is a key “alternative” pathway to a high school-equivalency credential. Evaluating knowledge in writing, reading, social studies, science and math, the score can be a gateway to a professional job or college degree, and can be used to qualify for financial aid. But now a reformed GED is threatening to narrow that gate: the new format will be more rigorous, costlier and completely computerized—daunting rigors for people who are living below poverty or aren’t tech-savvy. It all adds up to a harder test for people already challenged in many aspects of life: the testers are on average in their mid-twenties, half of them people of color, typically disconnected from the formal education system and facing deep economic burdens and maybe juggling work, family and night classes on the side. And they now face a $120 fee, which the testing company Pearson apparently thinks is a fair price for a shot at a certificate.
All this rebranding of the GED poses a bigger question for society: what is the test good for? The GED carries a stigma of mediocrity and may put people at a disadvantage when competing for jobs against full-fledged high school graduates. And even with a certificate, the testers have to contend with rising tuition costs and overcrowded community college campuses. Facing a 30 percent nationwide “fail” rate, they can ill-afford any more discouragement. Education access advocates fear there has been inadequate funding or program support from state or federal authorities to help with the transition, and adult education programs remain deeply underresourced.
In New Jersey, many students are simply left in the lurch. At Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a youth development and job training organization, the test transition has become a frustrating bottleneck for many students in the GED program who are eager to start college. There is no nearby testing center that offers the new GED or any alternative high school equivalency exam (though more than 10 states including New Jersey are adopting an alternative exam run by ETS, a commercial test-industry rival).
Some students who had gotten partial credit by taking portions of the paper version now must take the entire exam over again. Some students cannot enroll in college because—even though the exam itself is not a prerequisite for community college—the lack of a test grade is currently holding up their application for federal Pell grants, so they now face delays in obtaining essential financial aid.