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The GED no longer has a lock on the market for tests that serve as the equivalent of a high school degree. Three states have switched to new competitors from Educational Testing Service (ETS) and McGraw-Hill -- and many more are mulling a change.

The brewing battle between testing firms has its roots in the 2011 creation of the GED Testing Service, a for-profit corporation that is jointly owned by Pearson and the American Council on Education (ACE), the umbrella group for higher education.

The council first began offering the five-subject examinations, originally dubbed the General Education Development tests, as a high-school equivalency in 1942. Since then more than 18 million people who lack a high school diploma have passed the GED. Many of them have used that credential to enroll in college.

However, two years ago ACE teamed up with Pearson VUE, the testing center subsidiary of Pearson, an education company, to create a new venture that plans to offer a bulked-up version of the GED.

The new test will be available next January. Testing service officials said it will for the first time assess college readiness and also be aligned with Common Core State Standards, an ongoing effort to create more rigorous statewide standards in mathematics and English language arts. So far 45 states have signed on to the Common Core.

Officials with the GED Testing Service said the test will be substantially improved. A computer-based test is appropriate given digital literacy demands in the work force, they said. And the testing service added college readiness as a key component because of an increasing belief among experts that a high school credential is often not enough to keep someone above the poverty line.

“In the past, the GED used to be a terminal degree,” said CT Turner, a spokesman for the service. “Those days are gone.”

However, the test includes also includes controversial changes.

The new test will be fully computer-based and eliminate the option of a paper-based method (with a limited number of exceptions). Higher education leaders and politicians in some states have worried that the dearth of paper options could discourage substantial numbers of adults from taking the exams.

Price is also a concern. Some states subsidize the test while others add small fees. But for most GED-takers, the new version will be $120, roughly double its current fee. That’s a lot of money for a test that serves some of the nation’s lowest-income groups, critics have said.

Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, said the GED was no longer testing what many states expected from their high school graduates. “It made sense to update the test.”

But she said the cost and access worries have rippled around much of the country.

“It’s just giving states pause,” Hyslop said.

Two New Entrants

The backlash to the updated GED has contributed to the arrival of new entrants to a field so dominated by the GED that, like Kleenex, the brand’s name is synonymous with the product. After the GED changes were announced, adult education officials in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York got together to begin discussing other options.

Art Ellison, state director of adult education in New Hampshire, said the biggest concerns about the new test were cost and access. He and other critics said several groups of adult students, including migrant workers and prison inmates, often lack access to computers. Polling in New Hampshire of test-takers revealed that half prefer paper for a high-stakes test.

“We needed a paper-based option,” Ellison said.

The group of three states approached ETS and McGraw-Hill about creating new high-school equivalency tests they could consider as alternatives. Both ETS, a nonprofit testing group, and CTB/McGraw-Hill, which is a for-profit publisher and assessment company, decided to give it a whirl.

The two new tests have now officially entered the market. And they appear to be undercutting the GED on price, both with fees hovering at or just above $50.

The competition means states now have to conduct a Request-For-Proposal (RFP) or similar process to determine which test to use. Meanwhile, the group of three states looking for possible new options has grown to a 41-state working group administered by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

New York was the first to drop the GED. In March state officials announced that they were working with CTB/McGraw-Hill to adopt its test, called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC).

New Hampshire, Montana and Tennessee subsequently went with HiSET, which is the new offering from ETS. Iowa, Florida and Missouri are expected to soon announce the results of their decision between the three options.

“Once New York went with McGraw-Hill, that sort of broke the logjam,” Ellison said.

From the GED’s point of view, the 41-state working group drifted from its stated purpose of exploring other options.

“It quickly devolved into any option besides the GED,” Turner said.

Making the Transition

The struggle among testing services is getting contentious. That’s understandable, given that the GED is taken 800,000 times each year.

The GED’s owners said the new entrants are cheap knockoffs of their current test. Not so, said officials from ETS and CTB/McGraw-Hill, who joined critics of the new GED in saying it is past time for healthy competition.

Amy Riker, director of the HiSET program for ETS, said the group of state education leaders originally approached ETS because of cost worries.

“They wanted to make sure that another nonprofit filled the gap,” she said. “They were going to get nickel-and-dimed to death.”

In New Hampshire, the new ETS equivalency test will run $50 for at least the first three years after it becomes available in 2014, Riker said. (ETS is hardly a small-fry nonprofit. Its annual revenue tops $1 billion.)

The GED Testing Service said it is the only option that adequately incorporates the Common Core. Both competitors dispute that claim. It’s no easy task to say who’s right, given that the tests are just becoming available and the Common Core itself is still being adopted. The Common Core’s science standards remain a work in progress, and social studies faces an even more uncertain future.

The high school equivalency tests are also complex – the new GED takes more than seven hours to take. So weighing comparative quality with any confidence probably requires academic research.

Both the ETS and CTB/McGraw-Hill tests will retain paper-based options. That’s a selling point for some states, said advocates of those tests.

However, Turner said the GED would still be available in paper form in some cases, such as in the corrections systems in certain states. And he defended the move to a computer-based option, arguing that digital literacy is important for career and college preparation. The testing service also recently released a study showing that students in a pilot group had a higher passage rate on the new, computer-based GED.

“We will work with states. We want to make sure people have access,” said Turner. But he added that “access does not equal efficiency.”

Dropping the GED could lead to administrative burdens for colleges, Turner said. And some states could further complicate matters by endorsing multiple tests. One issue could be admissions requirements for colleges with open-door policies, where the GED is often a minimal requirement. Another is the “portability” of new high-school equivalency certificates when students transfer between colleges in different states.

But officials in New Hampshire said they were confident those potential hurdles will be overcome.

“We’ll make the adjustments fairly seamlessly,” said Shannon Reid, a spokeswoman for the Community College System of New Hampshire. “We’re having the conversations we need to have to prepare for it.”

Some states appear likely to stick with the GED, including Texas and Virginia. What other states do is anybody’s guess, but ETS and McGraw-Hill appear to have firm toeholds in the market.

“I’m really shocked that it took this long to have competitors,” said Hyslop.

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