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

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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.

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