It’s been disparaged as the “good enough diploma,” sometimes dismissed by employers as a stamp of mediocrity. But the General Educational Development (GED®) test has been undergoing a makeover of sorts, as the testing industry seeks to “raise the bar” on the high school equivalency exam. Yet after a recent plunge in passing rates, it seems the new test isn't broadening the pathway to college and careers, as intended—just closing the gates on more adult learners seeking a second chance.

The standardized-test giant Pearson seeks to make the GED a more rigorous assessment for job and college “readiness.” But with a pricier, fully computerized format, those higher standards come at a steep cost. According to San Antonio Current:

About 350,000 fewer people will earn a GED nationally than in 2012, and close to 500,000 fewer than last year. 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 have passed so far this year. … The drop off in Texas was about 86 percent; Florida, about 77 percent; Michigan, about 88 percent.

Some of this comes down to basic economics: The new test is administered only by computer, and typically costs $120. This shuts out many low-income people and those without access to modernized testing centers, like incarcerated students.

The new barriers are piled atop longstanding disadvantages in the adult learner population. According to the GED's 2013 data, testers were disproportionately of color, mostly blacks and Latinos. Most never got beyond 10th grade; on average, they are about 28 years old and have been out of school for a decade. Performance correlates directly with whether you’re white, male and younger.

Meanwhile, since GED’s generally don’t test actual knowledge that would be relevant to many adults who never finished high school (complex algebra might not be that handy for a low-income parent training to be a hospital aide), many adult-learning test-prep programs face a contradictory dual challenge of training students for a meaningless test, and trying to meaningfully educate them.

Critics say that the reformed test, like its K-12 counterparts, is narrow and tedious, featuring math problems that can stump even instructors and reading passages designed more for regurgitation than comprehension.

Moreover, advocates say the adult education workforce remains underfunded, so instructors are themselves struggling to get by as they work to help adult learners earn their credentials.

Billy Wharton, an instructor with an adult education program at New York City’s LaGuardia Community College, says that although students in his program get decent scores, the system shortchanges students and teachers alike. "Most teachers are part-time workers, paid only for hours in the classroom (not prep), without access to professional development, proper teaching supplies and subject to a grant-funded system that makes work ultra-precarious,” he tells The Nation via email. “Students then become the academic victims of this labor situation.”

New York has abandoned the new GED and now administers an alternative exam known as the TASC, marketed by McGraw-Hill, a competitor of Pearson.

Yet both tests represent systemic problems surrounding the entire corporate testing regime: it’s not just the standards that seem unfair, but the whole premise of fixating on the test itself, as a stand-in for actual intellectual advancement.

Aside from the dubious content and logistical barriers of the reformed exams, adult education activists fear the new test may aggravate the inherent limitations of an education system that prioritizes scores rather than learning.

“These issues about the GED and TASC are to some extent about the limitations of what we can expect from any kind of standardized test,” says Tom Hilliard, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for an Urban Future. In the long run, he points out, studies of the effectiveness of college-readiness tests show that in many respects, “they are not predictive of how people will do in college.”

So standardized tests seem to mainly test how well you test—resulting in a punishing ordeal for students and an uninspiring task for teachers.

Wharton says rigid test standards are stifling his language curriculum:

There is a conscious shift on both the GED and TASC to "informational texts" and away from literature. … The turn away from literature and the near complete abandonment of poetry has really changed what is going on inside of classrooms. Remember, that adult ed students come into the classroom with many traumatic experiences. … Art, poetry and other expressive arts offered students a chance to creatively explore ideas. … This has been a serious loss for teachers and students alike.

At the same time, LaGuardia Community College's "bridge to college" system has won praise for their innovation, precisely because they do not narrowly teach to the test, but aim to provide a wider scope of subjects and skills. Most students do well on the exam (which is free for New Yorkers), but not because they’ve spent all semester practicing: it’s just a checkpoint they pass on their way to a college degree or training certification.

Maybe the best way to achieve “high school equivalency” would simply be to provide an education that really is equivalent to high school. That isn’t done through constant “assessment” but through dedicated teachers and stimulating curricula. The new tests may crowd out what little room is left in the classroom for real enrichment.

Ira Yankwitt, executive director of New York’s Literacy Assistance Center, an adult-education professional development organization, says that government's overall disinvestment in programming reflects the structural barriers that derailed many adult learners from finishing high school to begin with.

"The need for adult education classes…really is an indictment of the system,” Yankwitt says. ”If you're unwilling to accept that you're not investing enough in the K-12 system, then you blame the victims of that lack of investment for their own 'failures.' And then you choose not to further invest to create the level of educational justice and equity that should have been created in the first place."

When people want to better their prospects by attaining the equivalent of a high school diploma, the system has to recognize that there's no substitute for an equal chance at a real education, even if it comes a few years late.

Note: Naomi Gordon-Loebl assisted with the research for this article.