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Elise Belcher

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

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."

Has the GED test always been hard? Some would say so. Especially if you are 20 years or more removed from high school and haven't thought of quadratic equations or Thomas Jefferson's verbiage since then. But for those trying to take the GED test in 2014, passage of the high-school equivalency is probably less likely than at any other point in the history of the test.

Changes to the 2014 version of the test were made to bring it up to date, in some people's eyes. That meant adapting the questions to reflect the new Common Core standards being taught in most high schools across the country, offering the test online only and not on paper, and requiring more essays. The results have been dramatic.

Based upon preliminary findings, 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 Florida, 28,422 passed the test in 2012, and 44,688 did so in 2013, but only 6,677 had passed by mid-December 2014.

Other states have similar rates. The drop-off in Texas was about 86 percent; Michigan, about 88 percent.

Many think this is because the test is too hard, too focused on algebra and essays, too much analysis of history instead of knowing historical facts. But the main issue is: Who is the GED test for and what should it measure? Should it be geared toward determining if someone has the skills to make it in college, or the skills necessary to be employed and to move up to a better job? The GED has always struggled with servicing both groups; but right now, most GED test teachers feel the test has moved too far into measuring college preparedness.

"Raising the standards was an important thing to do, but without adequate teacher training and a significant investment in current technology, it left adult and correctional education students even further behind in educational achievement," says Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, the largest prison educational organization in the country. "It is a national tragedy that will continue to have repercussions for years."

When it was announced a few years ago that the test would change on Jan. 1, 2014, academic and educational consultants overseeing the new version predicted a slight downturn in passage rates and overall test takers. The reasoning: So many people would try to pass the test in 2013 because any sections they had previously passed wouldn't carry over once the new test began in 2014. This is why the number of people who passed the GED was higher in 2013 than in 2012.

But there is another reason for the small number of people passing the GED test in 2014: Hardly anyone is taking it. And that has as much to do with how the test is administered as it does the content. The previous test was administered with pen and paper, but this version can only be taken on a computer. And here's the kicker: More than half the people in the U.S. who do not have a high-school diploma do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home. The same number, not surprisingly, have no Internet access either.

Those making less than $25,000 clock in at similar rates regardless of their educational background. Many of those who need a GED most – those without a high-school diploma and with a poverty-rate income – do not have a computer or Internet access, which puts them far, far behind from the very start for two reasons: It's hard to build keyboard and mouse skills for a timed test without practice, and GED Testing Service (the company that administers the test) makes it maddeningly difficult even to print sample questions to study at home.

To get sample tests, students must have access to the Internet to take them, pay $6 for each sample test section with a credit card (if their tutoring program won't buy it for them, and many don't), and have an active email account. All of that makes having a computer and Internet access paramount to passage.

While lack of access makes studying for the GED harder, the content itself makes it even more difficult.

And that raises the question that has dogged the GED test since its inception: Is the primary purpose of the test to measure the likelihood of student's successful college career? Or is it a measure of a dropout's willingness to achieve a goal that makes them more attractive to employers?

In other words, is the GED designed to measure whether a student can handle Jane Austen novels and polynomial equations, or whether that person has the wherewithal to stock shelves at Walmart or hang drywall? The current test suggests that the former seems to be more important. And while we all would agree that high-school students need to know more before entering college, and that sound math and language skills are part of that, should we ace out a whole group of people from getting a GED because some college administrators don't think their incoming students know enough algebra?

"What I've noticed more than anything is that the participation rates are shockingly low this year over previous years, so the word has gotten out that it is extremely hard," says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis that works with states to get more of the poor and disadvantaged into college.

"The way I see it, they have effectively gutted the GED program by these changes they have made," Jones says. "Adult students who have been out of high school for a while aren't passing this test. There needs to be a viable option for older adults to get into college and move up in the job market, and the changes made this year have greatly diminished the GED as a pathway to get to that goal."

The GED test sprang out of World War II. In 1942, when Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, it meant some high-school students were put into military service. When the war was over and the GI Bill was passed to pay for veterans' college education, there was a need to figure out what to do with the soldiers whose high-school education was interrupted by the war. They knew they couldn't send 21-year-olds who had landed on the beaches at Iwo Jima back to high school to finish up.

So a test was devised, but not one that just measured academic skill sets. It was designed in more practical ways, testing for those non-cognitive or common-sense life skills veterans had learned during the war. So it was a mixed bag when it began, attempting to balance and give credit for the knowledge obtained by the test taker outside of school in the real world.

Over time, the GED grew substantially with help from college administrators. It was seen as a second-chance diploma (a Good Enough Diploma, as many joked), and over time, all 50 states accepted the GED test. It grew particularly quickly in the 1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" used GED certification as a way to promote more high-school graduates among students who may have had to quit high school and go to work due to poverty.

The test has changed four times since its inception to keep up with changes in education (before 2014, the last time it changed was in 2002). Sometimes the changes meant more math, sometimes more essay writing, mainly because college educators wanted some assurances that their GED students would have the necessary skills to handle the rigors of the post-secondary world. And over the years the GED was overseen by the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents and administrators.

As part of the changes this time around, the test was developed and overseen by the GED Testing Service, a joint venture between the nonprofit ACE and the for-profit testing company Pearson VUE. The joint venture was late in getting teaching materials to programs for student preparation, and many centers say they didn't receive them until November 2013, just two months before the new test took effect. The price to take the test also increased.

Though some states have voucher grants of $40 for first-time takers, Florida does not, so most test takers paid $128 for the new test, up from $70. A short sample test is offered online for free, but to get a larger sample of questions (about half the size of the actual test, containing four sections), prospective testers pony up $6 per section.

The higher costs and online-only service represent the need to offer better and quicker responses to how the student has done on the test, according to C.T. Turner, GED Testing Service spokesman. "We heard from testers that there wasn't a flexibility under the old system that would let the test takers know with certainty what progress they were making," he says. "This system of doing it online lets them know instantly what they got right and what they missed and what they need to do to improve."

As far as getting rid of the pen-and-paper approach, Turner says the decision "was made to make sure those passing the test had the computer skills which reflected college and career readiness." But when asked why the test seemed to not be testing technology knowledge, but use of a keyboard and mouse, which may be far less used with the advancement of touch screen technology and voice activation, Turner says, "We are measuring what a student who graduates from high school now has to be proficient in, and knowing how to use a computer is part of that."

And that is a big part of the controversy over this test. In the past, the GED had not been strictly a measure of what a high-school grad's cognitive skill set was from that time period, but leaned a bit toward crediting the older test taker's life experience. But those defending the changes said over and over that to make the GED easier than what the high-school student needed to know to graduate would be "unfair" to those high-school students, along with perhaps necessitating remedial classes if the GED passers wanted to go to college.

"We can't just give a GED to a person who shows up to classes for a number of months and then can sign their name in crayon," Turner says.

The Common Core standards are the driving force behind the new GED test's content changes and are somewhat difficult to explain. For years, many college educators thought that high schools were not preparing their graduates well enough for college curricula, and there was a movement to rectify that. In the end, rote learning was replaced by analysis, placing a greater importance on why facts were relevant and how they could be used, not what they were.

They first began getting traction in the mid-1990s among university presidents who thought their freshman students were ill-prepared. By the late 2000s, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates started championing educational changes through his foundation. Some 44 states eventually adopted the standards, though a dozen or so are now rethinking their educational policies, sometimes by way of reflection on how it has performed, sometimes by way of conservative backlash at what the fringes claim as lefty conspiratorial endeavors into schools.

Along the way, the thought process went like this: If the country were to change what students were expected to know upon graduation from high school, then the test that allowed dropouts to graduate must also reflect those changes. The problem in that assessment: Only 40 percent of those who passed the GED went on to any higher educational pursuits, and of those, only a small fraction (single-digit percentages, according to most studies) attended college for more than a year. The vast majority of those taking the GED were doing so for employment opportunities.

Measuring job-ready skills was an afterthought in the Common Core standards from the beginning. The "workplace" aspect of the standards is only mentioned at the end of the executive summary in a cursory manner in an essay called "The American Diploma Project," one of the early Common Core studies published in 2004:

"States have developed high-school assessments without much regard for what colleges need, and colleges use admissions and placement exams that are disconnected from the curriculum students study in high school. The result is too many tests and a mixed set of messages to students, parents and teachers about which ones matter most. States must streamline their assessment systems so that high-school graduation and college admissions and placement decisions are based on student achievement of college and workplace readiness content."

A heavily shared Facebook post earlier this year from a frustrated parent illustrated the controversy over the new standards. The father published a picture of a homework assignment for his fifth-grader: Subtract 316 from 427. Instead of stacking the two numbers on top of each other and subtracting vertically to reach 111, the assignment wanted the elementary school student to use a linear approach, where the student would get the answer by subtracting 100 from 427 three times, then 10 once, then one six times.

The father wrote to the teacher, as a frustrated parent and electrical engineer, that he couldn't get the right answer using the Common Core approach. "In the real world, simplification is valued over complication," he added.

GED tutors and teachers echo his sentiment – that the new standards overcomplicate the test. The math portion, for example, used to include fairly straightforward questions without dipping into wordy presentations and ventured little beyond basic algebra. The new test emphasizes more algebra and geometry, as well as polynomials, graphing and quadratic equations. A question from a sample test illustrates the verbose nature of the problems:

Cilia are very thin, hair-like projections from cells. They are 2.0 x 10-4 millimeters wide. What is the maximum number of cilia that would fit side by side – without overlapping – across a microscope slide that is 25 millimeters wide?

a. 8.0 x 10-6

b. 1.25 x 10-3

c. 8.0 x 102

d. 1.25 x 105

The science section pushes students further too. One sample question asks the test taker to interpret, via an equation, whether energy is stored, created or produced when glucose, water, oxygen and carbon dioxide are combined. The old test, McLaughlin says, required the students to know some of the elements on the periodic table, but did not have them analyze how the elements reacted with each other.

And in the writing portion of the test, the previous test asked for one personal essay, the topic of which might be: "Who is someone you think is successful and why?" The purpose of the essay was to see if the respondent knew how to put nouns and verbs and prepositions together in proper order. In other words, the test didn't really assess what you said, just how clearly you said it.

But the new test flips that around. There are now two essays, and they are graded not on grammar but on reasoning. For example, one of the sample questions in the language portion asks the tester to read two essays on daylight savings time – one in favor, one against – and then write an essay about which one is better and why. Another example is writing an essay about the importance of the concept of "sustainability" within the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Another asks a test taker whether a school's decision to expel a student who refuses to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance is covered by the freedom of religion or freedom of speech, and how Thomas Jefferson's writing fits into the question at hand. The essay will be judged, in part, on "your own knowledge of the enduring issue and the circumstances surrounding the case to support your analysis."

Grading is focused on analysis and interpretation rather than sentence structure, and the GED website says a passing essay might exhibit "draft writing." "We do not hold test-takers to a standard of very formal conventions at all," it says. "Rather, we understand that they have minimal time for proofreading and we can accept diction that is significantly more casual than, for example, what might be required on a résumé cover letter. The language requirements are not as high as 'Edited American English.'"

So the test measures knowledge of how many tiny cell hairs can fit on a slide, the energy production of an equation, Thomas Jefferson's analysis of a West Virginia court case, and interpretation of the concept of environmental sustainability. All in four test sections that have to be completed in about seven hours. On a computer. By people who may have limited computer skills and no spell check.

Steve Miller has been studying for a few hours at the Seeds of Literacy tutoring offices in Cleveland. It is a cold and rainy Tuesday, and he is dressed in a multi-colored hoodie and block "C" Indians cap. He is 23, gets minimal Social Security Disability benefits for bipolar disorder, and has been working on his GED since February. By his own admission, he's not even close to passing any of the sections. Maybe math first, and the other three after that.

Miller wants to be a roofer or a tile layer or land some other construction job, and knows he needs the GED to get things moving. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, and "never did much of anything in school and got in trouble a lot." He says the test is "pretty hard," and says he would rather take it on paper, "because I think I write better and faster with a pen, and I'm just not very quick with a keyboard."

One of his instructors is Jim Redmond, a retired industrial sales rep who volunteers at Seeds of Literacy a few days a week. He has seen how the test changes have taken their toll on the students. "Even the occasional students we get who are extremely bright are taking very much longer," he says. "But it is even more difficult to keep the ones around who really have to work hard. It's tough to get people to commit to those for more than a year, and we are seeing that right now.

"The test is just not very practical," Redmond says. As he looks over 20 or so people studying, he says that "90 percent of the people here aren't going to college if they pass the test, and to say that the purpose of the GED is to prepare people for college is foolish. These people just want to improve their jobs. We used to have trade schools and apprentice programs, but now we have to measure people as if they are going to college. Well, not everyone is going to college and we shouldn't pretend everyone should."

And that is precisely the problem with the current test. If the previous version didn't serve the college-driven population well, the current version doesn't serve the job-driven population at all.

John Eric Humphries, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Chicago and co-author of The Myth of Achievement Tests (University of Chicago Press, 2014) says the key warning sign is not how few are passing, but how few are taking the new test. "The most shocking thing is that [the number of] people taking it has plummeted," he says. "And we have to find out the reason for that. Is it the computer skills needed, the cost or the content, or a combination?"

Humphries thinks the problem is not so much the Common Core standards used for the questions, "because this is a fair test of what graduates of high school should know, and if that is how we determine math or English or computer skills, the GED should be a reflection of that. Over time the GED instructors and the students will catch up with that.

"But the real problem is that we use the same assessment for a job parking cars as we do for getting into college with the current GED," Humphries says. "Those are completely different tasks and different questions we should be using. But we use the same test for both."

There has been movement through the years to create different tests to measure different abilities, and the notion of a GED for college admissions and GED for work qualifications has been bandied about. Ten states have either opted out of the Pearson test and offer one of two competing tests, or offer all three.

In addition, studies have shown that prison recidivism rates decrease by about 30 percent if the incarcerated participate in educational programs while locked up.

"We have seen that doing education programs for those in prison is a good investment, but if they aren't seeing a reasonable payoff to their efforts, there is a real danger that they aren't going to perhaps buy into other changes they need to make," says Dr. Lois Davis, senior researcher at Rand Corp., who has studied education programs in prisons.

"If [a state] goes from more than 2,000 prisoners getting a GED each year down to a few hundred, there are just going to be many problems that the state has to deal with," Davis says. "The numbers are shocking; I am surprised the prison officials aren't sounding the alarms more on what is happening here."

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