The GED gets a makeover: Will it make for better workers?

For more than 70 years, the General Educational Development exam, or the GED, has been an important tool for those who didn't complete high school and immigrants looking to make inroads into higher education or secure better jobs. On Sunday, we take a look at the overhaul to the exam set to take effect in January 2014.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

MONA ISKANDER: Twenty-two year old Robert Covington spends a lot of his time at the new haven adult education center. He dropped out of high school when he was 17 and now he’s trying to make up for lost time.

ROBERT COVINGTON: It’s not 3.5…I made mistakes when I was younger.  And I just-- I want to be able to better myself.  Become a better man and this starts here with your education. 

MONA ISKANDER: Covington has passed the science, social studies, writing and reading sections of the general educational development exam– or the GED -- the nationally recognized high school equivalency test. Now he’s practicing geometry problems so he can pass the math section. He’d like to start community college early next year.

ROBERT COVINGTON: So I have to pass it.  Yeah.  Fingers crossed. 

MONA ISKANDER: Many like him across the country are rushing to take the GED now because this January a new version of the test will roll out and about 40 states, including Connecticut, are expected to use it. The test will be more rigorous, will cost more in some states and only be available online.

MONA ISKANDER: And if you need to take it over in the New Year, then what?

ROBERT COVINGTON: I'm just going to have to take it over.  Start from square one.

RANDY TRASK: What we're doing is absolutely the most monumental-- change we've made in our-- in our GED testing service history.  I think what we're doing is-- complicated.  It's confusing.  It's worrisome.  But we're absolutely convinced that what we're doing is the right thing for learners.

MONA ISKANDER: randy Trask is the president of the GED testing service, the for-profit company that’s developing the new exam.  The GED was created in 1942 for returning veterans who dropped out of high school to serve in World War II and was run by the non-profit American Council on Education.

RANDY TRASK: And in the 70 years since then, our test takers have evolved quite a bit.  But we now have more than 19 million people that have-- have earned their second chance at-- at a high school credential by way of the GED test.

MONA ISKANDER: The GED has been an important tool for high school dropouts and immigrants to make inroads into higher education or to secure better jobs. About 700,000 people take it every year, but only about 36% of those who pass the GED, enroll in a two or four year college… compared to 66% of high school grads who enroll. And overall, those with a high school equivalency degree earn less than those with a regular high school degree.

MONA ISKANDER: Trask says figures like that compelled the Council in 2011 to partner with Pearson, an education services company. They formed a joint venture under the name GED Testing Service – and hired Randy Trask to overhaul the GED.

MONA ISKANDER: What is it that was lacking in the old exam?

RANDY TRASK: If-- you think about what we've been testing historically, we've been testing knowledge.  And what employers are telling us and what colleges are telling us is it's less about the knowledge and more about being able to use what you know to demonstrate critical thinking skills and solve real-world problems. 

MONA ISKANDER:  Trask says in order to keep up with the times, the test going forward will only be administered by computer. It’ll be more rigorous to reflect new academic standards that high schools in many states have already adopted to prepare students for college or the workforce.

RANDY TRASK: Take math, for example. Can you use that to solve a problem that's interesting-- to the-- two-- to the employer. For example, can you go in-- using some-- some basic algebra to adjust pricing-- for-- a store?  It's the application of the knowledge that becomes much more important than the original knowledge we-- tested.

MARY MCNERNEY: I was definitely a naysayer initially, a skeptic.  And-- I felt, "What are they thinking?" "How do we know it's a present tense verb?"

MONA ISKANDER:  Mary McNerney is a GED instructor at the New Haven Adult Education Center. Today, the lesson is on using correct verb tenses. 

MARY MCNERNEY: I was worried.  I was thinking, "Oh, my God.  (Are my students really going to pass this test?"  And then, it's the use of a computer.  You know, for a lot of the young people, no problem; they're happy it's on a computer.  For the people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, they're, "Oh, my God.  It's another obstacle."

MONA ISKANDER: One of her students is 56-year-old Roosevelt Barnes. He dropped out of high school to join the military… he then worked as an electrician… but lately, he says, finding work has been hard.…. Now he needs to pass the GED exam to go to community college.  He wants to eventually open an auto repair business.

MONA ISKANDER: So you've been taking classes here, and you found out that the new test will actually be administered by computer -- was it intimidating at first?

ROOSEVELT BARNES: Yes.  Because-- I'm computer illiterate and-- now since I’m-- doing-- the classes and stuff, they also have-- computer training. 

MONA ISKANDER:  This has pushed you to learn more?

ROOSEVELT BARNES: Yes.  Uh-huh.

MONA ISKANDER:  And while the State of Connecticut has embraced the new GED exam, education officials just one state over in New York have serious reservations about it.

MONA ISKANDER: So your reaction was what?

KEVIN SMITH: Too far, too fast. 

MONA ISKANDER: Kevin Smith is the Deputy Commissioner for Adult Career and Continuing Education for New York State.  He agrees the exam needed to adapt to a changing world, but he says the new version threatens to leave too many people behind.

MONA ISKANDER: One of the concerns you had is  the new GED test is going to be-- administered by computer only.

KEVIN SMITH: Yes.

MONA ISKANDER: But isn't  it important to push people into the digital realm? 

KEVIN SMITH: Absolutely.  We would call that an aspirational goal for us and for the test taker.  For the test taker who has little access to basic computing skills, or little knowledge of basic computing skills, it's one more point or one more barrier to their ability to demonstrate their skills.  There are too many barriers already and we need to break those barriers down one at a time. 

MONA ISKANDER:  And even if New York State wanted to use the new GED exam, he says practical considerations would make it impossible. 

KEVIN SMITH: Equally important, our infrastructure to provide that test exam by computer is negligible. 

MONA ISKANDER:  Smith also says the cost of administering the new exam is prohibitive since it would rise from $60 to $120 per test taker in New York.  Costs vary and some states subsidize a portion of the exam, but by law, New York would have to pay for all of it.

MONA ISKANDER:  At least eight states have opted not to use the new GED exam at all and are planning to use an alternative, including New York which has hired another education service company – CTB/McGraw-Hill, a competitor of the GED testing service. Its test will be offered online and on paper… and the level of difficulty will increase gradually over three years.

MONA ISKANDER: Do you think that this is doing a disservice at all to New Yorkers not to be part of  what most other states are doing?

KEVIN SMITH: No, I don't.  No, I think quite the opposite.  I do-- I think it's doing a service to New Yorkers. This is a much slower, more appropriate phase-in to the new exam, the new standards, than we are led to believe will occur in those other 40 states utilizing the GED exam.

MONA ISKANDER: We've talked to people who say the test was not working as it was.  But maybe the changes should have been a little bit slower-- incremental.  What do you say to that?

RANDY TRASK: Well, I say change is hard.  We have to keep focusing on the fact that-- that it's really not about-- a credential.  This isn't-- a feel-good ending.  This is about getting people into jobs that they can-- be less vulnerable to economic downturn. And so we're doing no one any favors if we don't in fact make sure that these adults are equipped with exactly what they need to compete for these higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs.

MONA ISKANDER:  Trask points out that the cost of the new GED includes online resources to find out about jobs and training programs.

Back at the New Haven Adult Education Center, Mary McNerney says she’s come to embrace the mission of the new GED test and she’s up for the challenge.

MONA ISKANDER: Are you concerned that some people may not be up to speed by next year?

MARY MCNERNEY: If I have any concerns that some people will not be ready this year-- which, many are not-- I believe, in my heart, that the majority of them will be able to work through the curriculum to eventually get their GED.

MONA ISKANDER:  As for Robert Covington, he took the remaining section of the exam last weekend. He could find out if he passed as early as next week.