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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 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

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