The number of Americans passing the GED is dropping rapidly. Why? And who's left behind? 

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Elise Belcher

Derwin Williams sits in a study room at Project Learn, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland that offers adult-education programs, with sample questions for the GED before him on a computer screen. The 29-year-old wants to get into the construction trade, maybe as a roofer or drywall hanger, and he knows he needs a diploma to get into vocational technical classes to do that. So passing the GED, a test that for more than 70 years has offered high-school dropouts a second chance at earning a General Education Diploma, is important to him.

Williams dropped out of high school more than a decade ago, in part because of a gunshot wound that left him hospitalized for six months. He's had some legal problems since then too, mostly from a DUI conviction a few years ago, but he'll be sober three years this coming March. He started thinking about a GED when his probation program encouraged him to do so.

Williams is unemployed and has been studying for the four-part GED for most of 2014. In previous years, 11 months of prep would likely have given him a decent chance of success. But the test was radically changed in January 2014, and like many, Williams hasn't yet made enough progress to take any of the four sections. According to some sample tests he's taken, he's getting close in the math and science portions, but he's still pretty far out in the social science and language parts.

Williams' experience is typical of those who've been studying for the GED over the past year. Tutors say the previous version of the test, which had been around since 2002, required about six months of studying — three to six hours a week — for a person of average intelligence to stand a good chance of passing. But the test changes — which implemented the controversial Common Core standards and required the exam be taken online instead of on paper — has made passing the GED test more difficult than anyone can remember.

The numbers are shocking: In the United States, according to the GED Testing Service, 401,388 people earned a GED in 2012, and about 540,000 did so in 2013. In 2014, according to the latest numbers, only about 55,000 have passed the GED nationally. That's a 90 percent drop-off from the previous year.

Related: A GED reader – what others are saying about the new testing standards.

And there are serious repercussions. As national economic policy is emphasizing more adult-education programs, and most jobs (even stocking shelves at Walmart) require a high-school diploma, the new GED test has moved the goal posts way farther. Particularly for the incarcerated, since so many prison re-entry education programs include getting the high-school dropout population to pass the GED test.

Williams understands the test is hard, but doesn't have much perspective on how it has changed. "I know if I would have stayed in school things would have been different," he says. "But I know the only way I am going to get ahead is by working hard to pass this test. It's been hard studying but I think I might be getting close. So I just keep working."

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