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

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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."

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