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San Diego Students Adjusting To New Expectations For GED

Evening Edition

Above: A GED is supposed to open the door to higher paying jobs and more education for people without a high school diploma. But research shows people who passed the test earned less than high school grads and were less likely to go to college. KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert tells us changes to the GED this year are meant to raise the bar. But they’re also raising concerns.

Aired 2/17/14 on KPBS News.

Research shows people who pass the test General Educational Development test earn less than high school grads and were less likely to go to college.

— Some of students in Trenton Watkin's adult education class look like they could still be in high school. Others look like they could have grandchildren in high school. But each of them is there to prepare to take the GED. For decades the General Educational Development test has been a ticket to entry level jobs and higher education for Americans who didn't finish high school.

GED Instructor Trenton Watkins introduces his students to square roots at san Doego Community College District's Educational Cultural Complex Feb. 5, 2014.

Myesha Jones has been taking classes to get ready for the GED since September at San Diego Community College District's Educational Cultural Complex in Mountain View. The 35-year-old mother of two wants to study psychology.

“I wanted to go to college," she said. "Because I took time off because I had my kids, to raise them. But now I have a junior and a senior so I decided to go back for myself.”

Her classmate Bonnie Arias started studying for the GED three years ago, more than 30 years after dropping out of high school in 10th or 11th grade to get a job. She hopes passing the tests will hep get her back into the work force.

“I was injured at work when I was 30 years old, when I was working at Pizza Hut," she said. "So I thought, maybe, someone might hire me with a little bit of knowledge.”

But the finish line they’re working toward moved on Jan. 1. One morning during the second week of the new semester Watkins was giving his first lesson on square roots — just one of the new topics GED test takers will have to be prepared for this year.

”We’ve had to toss in some new math topics as well as language arts," he said. "They switched the essay from a basic five-paragraph essay based upon opinion to now it being an evidence-based essay. So that now the students have to learn to cite evidence use quotations and things like that.”

The GED Testing Service, the company that designs the exams, revamped the tests this year to put them more in line new expectations for high school graduates under the Common Core standards 45 states have adopted for math and English.

Test takers now have to pass four instead of five exams. They have to be prepared with more critical thinking and complex problem solving skills and to do more writing in subject areas like math and science. Pencil and paper are out too, the new tests have to be taken on a computer.

“This raises the bar," said Lorie Crosby-Howell, dean of San Diego Community College’s GED program. "I read some research that even the most prepared students who leave high school or adult ed and still four levels below where they need to be to be successful in college. So with raising the bar with the new GED, teaching the college and career readiness skills, is exactly what’s needed right now.”

According to 2009 census data, people who completed the old GED tests earned less than those with traditional high school diplomas and were far less likely to pursue or complete a college degree.

But those statistics didn’t make the changes more appealing to Myesha Jones, who said she was nervous when she first heard the news. After a few days back in class, though, she said the work seems manageable.

“The class is the same, it’s just more new material and I think we go a little bit more in depth with the material,” she said.

Plenty of the students Watkins works with were nervous, he said. But so far they've tackled the new math topics without problems.

"They seem to be adjusting pretty well and haven’t run into any real sticky situations yet," he said. "But we haven’t really dug into the writing yet either, so hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to get some more information in regards to that.”

Writing about what they read still has Bonnie Arias concerned. She said picking out the main idea in a reading passage can be a challenge. She's determined but less confident about being able to pass the new version of the test.

“I said ‘Oh no! I’m not going to go in and pay for a test where I could fail it.’ Especially at the end,” she said.

Taking, and failing, the tests will cost students more now. There isn't a fixed price for GED tests in California, but at the testing center closest to the Educational Cultural Complex taking all parts of the GED will now cost $140, up from $125 last year. Those preparing for the tests also have to pay $6 for practice exams, which used to be free.

About 20 percent of the students enrolled in the adult education classes along side Arias and Jones will be paying for the tests twice — they tried and failed to pass the previous version of the exams and any passing scores are now void.

Getting ready for the new tests is going to be a bigger commitment for most of the program’s students, who face hurdles most traditional high school students don't, according to Sheyla Castillo, a counselor in the adult education program.

“Some of them are just trying to get by," she said, "they’re single parents who are addressing many different needs. More than anything, in order to pass it’s going to now take them longer, in order to achieve that more complex thought level it’s going to take a longer period of time.”

The program is changing to help students cover that ground. Instead of three levels of classes, they now offer four. Castillo said one focuses on the computer skills students need to take the new tests. The district has also spent about $35,000 on new textbooks, according to Crosby Howell. But printing delays mean the new texts haven’t arrived and instructors haven’t seen a full sample version of the exams.

John Bromma has concerns about what he has seen. He is a professor and counselor who works with students with disabilities.

“The tests, from what we’ve seen — and we still haven’t seen a lot of it – looks to be far more abstract and far more high-level material that a lot of our students may struggle with because depending on their disability, particularly when it’s a cognitive disability, abstract information is the toughest thing to process,” he said.

There were already plenty of students who struggled to pass the old exams. In 2012, 53,011 Californians took one or more of the GED exams, of those 30,201 or 56.9 percent got passing grades on all five parts, according to the most recent report from the GED Testing Service. The passing rates in 2011 and 2010 were slightly better — 60.3 and 61 percent respectively. Bromma and others are concerned raising the bar may cut more people off from opportunities the old certificate did provide.

“If you don’t have a high school diploma or GED, most places won’t hire you," Bromma said. "So — are we going to put that out of reach for people who aren’t destined for a four-year diploma, or what?”

Questions like this one have some states giving up on the GED and going with one of two new companies offering alternative high school equivalency tests. Others are letting test takers chose between the GED and one of the new alternatives. What California will do is still up in the air. So there could be more changes in store for students like Myesha Jones and Bonnie Arias.

Comments

Avatar for user 'WorkingTeacher'

WorkingTeacher | February 17, 2014 at 8:41 a.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

According to the GED Testing Service, the passing score is set "based on the performance of a national sample of high school graduates from the class of 2013." This is the way the GED test has always been "normed" (ie, had its passing score determined). An adult GED test taker is in competition with those graduating high school students who took test. The test makers, on their own, do not decide what a passing score will be. So all this talk about how much harder the new GED will be is just plain false. To hear community college deans in charge of the GED at their school talk about how it's "raising the bar" shows how misinformed people are about this.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | February 17, 2014 at 10:51 a.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

We are in a downward spiral.

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Avatar for user 'standupPWD'

standupPWD | February 18, 2014 at 12:01 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

I think the bottom line here is this-if students are unable to get a GED, what are their options? Where can they work? People falsely assume that anyone can get a GED, while this is simply not true. Students with cognitive impairments, brain injuries, memory issues, students that have English as their second, third or even fourth language may have significant problems processing the level and complexity of the information on the new GED. I have taken the practice test and I can verify that it is much more difficult that the former GED tests.
Last time I checked, people who were going for the GED were not trying to get into Harvard-or even SDSU. Most people who are trying to get their GED are simply trying to get a job. Do we need to have people with college-level skills working at Rite Aid at the register? What about cashiers at the gas station? Not everyone is going to be capable of college level coursework, or even wants to pursue an advanced education. Do we cut this entire population off from employability? This is what is happening, and it's just ludicrous. What has happened here is that a private company has taken over the GED and they are out to make more money. How? Well, they made the GED much more difficult to pass, so you have to pay for it each time you take it. What else, you ask? You must pay for each practice test you take. There are four tests, so each time you want to see if you are ready to pass a test you PAY again to take each practice test.
Fortunately people are picking up on this and many states have decided they won't be using the GED. My hope is that California will make that same decision, and re-open the doors to people that have been shut out.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | February 18, 2014 at 12:09 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

standupPWD passing the GED does not mean you have college-level skills, it means you barely have high-school level skills and now are prepared to start college.

To be honest, most kids I encounter out of high school can barely reed or form sentences. It is insane, and I fear for the future of our nation.

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