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The number of people who earned a GED last year declined significantly, following the first major revamp of the high school equivalency test in over a decade. Critics of the updated exam point to a test that's more difficult, more expensive and accessible only on a computer as explanations for the drop.

The GED overhaul aimed to better align the test with the skills students will need to succeed in college and the workforce. The revisions followed a recent change in ownership for the GED Testing Services. The American Council on Education, higher education's umbrella group, had overseen the exam since its creation. But in 2011 the council partnered with Pearson, a large education technology company, to create a joint venture to manage the GED.

In 2014, roughly 248,000 people took the test. At least 86,000 successfully earned a GED, according to preliminary data from GED Testing Services. That's far below the previous year's numbers: 800,000 test takers and nearly 560,000 GED recipients in 2013. 

Yet testing officials say it's misleading to compare data between the two years. They anticipated a temporary drop for a variety of reasons, in part because of the transition to a new test, as well as the introduction of new, competing tests to the market. While the pass rate did drop last year, the decrease isn't as severe as it appears when comparing absolute numbers between 2013 and 2014, officials said.

CT Turner, a spokesman for the service, said the number of test takers is down across the country, including in states that have stopped using the GED and ones that don’t charge anything to take the test.

“This is a national issue,” Turner said. “It’s not about rigor or price.”

GED officials said the beefed-up version of the test was a necessity: The certificate is supposed to represent what a high school graduate should know and be able to do. And the academic standards high school seniors are expected to meet have gotten more intense since the last version of the test was created, in part due to the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

But the announcement of the new test generated a flood of concern and skepticism among many who work in adult education. They criticized the switch to a computer-only format and a more rigorous test as additional obstacles that an already-vulnerable population of test-takers would have to overcome. The increase in the price of the test was also criticized. (The cost to test-takers varies from state to state. GED Testing Service charges each state $120 per test.)

After the Cleveland Scene first reported on the drop, news spread quickly that the new test was off to what some would call a shaky start, with seriously drops in the number of test-takers and a lower-than-normal pass rate. Media in states such as Wisconsin and Rhode Island reported a more than 90 percent drop in the number of adults earning the GED certificate. 

GED Fast Facts

States that offer the GED: 50 in 2013, 40 in 2014.

Cost: $120, roughly double what it was previously. Price for test-takers varies by state.

Average pass rate 2002-2013: 70.9 percent.

Estimated pass rate for 2014: 60 percent.

Much of that data lacks nuance and context, though, according to testing officials. Every time officials announce a new version of the test, there’s a spike in test-takers before the old version is retired, followed by a drop with the introduction of the new exam.

In 2001, the last time a new test was introduced, the number of test-takers was cut in half -- from 1.1 million to 550,000 in 2002. Officials expected a similar percent drop this time around, Turner said.

On top of that, the GED no longer has a monopoly on high school equivalency exams. Educational Testing Services (ETS) and CTB/McGraw-Hill have created their own versions, meaning the pool of potential GED-takers was smaller in 2014 than it was in 2013.

Now, a handful of states let test-takers choose between the GED and its competitors. Ten states have dropped the once-ubiquitous GED altogether.

HiSET, the alternative test developed by ETS, had about 50,000 test-takers (and between 30,000 and 35,000 passers) last year in the 12 states in which it’s offered. Officials with the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), the exam developed by McGraw-Hill, declined to release participation rates.

The New York State Department of Education was one of the first states to switch to TASC. But the department said it did not have information about the number of adults who took the test in its first year. Missouri, which uses HiSET, usually has between 11,000 and 13,000 people take its high school equivalency exam. That number dipped to 9,409 last year.

Success on a New Test?

While the number of test-takers dropped the last time the GED changed, the pass rate stayed roughly the same -- 69 percent in 2001 and 70 percent in 2002. That's not the case this time, though.

The pass rate is compared to the number of people who complete all four sections of the GED, not compared to the absolute number of test-takers.

In 2013, for example, 848,763 adults took at least one of the GED subtests. Of the 743,143 who completed all the sections, 559,773 earned their GED, for a pass rate of about 75 percent. In 2012, before the spike the GED said it anticipated, 428,015 people earned a GED and the pass rate was about 69 percent.

In the decade prior to the 2014 test, overall pass rates have ranged from 68 percent to 75 percent, according to annual data published by the GED. 

In the past, a test-taker could earn his or her GED even with a particularly low score in one section, Turner said. So, for example, if a test-taker scored really low in math, he or she could make up for that by scoring higher in another subject to balance it out.

With the new exam, participants must meet a basic high-school equivalency in each of the subjects. For three out of four of the subjects, Turner said the pass rates look like they’ll end up a couple of percentage points lower than the historical average.

But math is holding people back, he said. Preliminary numbers show the pass rate for math will be between 58 and 60 percent. (The overall pass rate will be equal to the lowest subject pass rate.) A bright spot, according to Turner, is that of those who fail math, most are within a few answers of passing.

"This is not an unachievable standard,” he said, adding that with the new computer system, officials can pinpoint specific questions and subjects that are causing people trouble. 

In the past, the GED could be a terminal degree, but that's not the case any longer, as more people are using it as a step toward some sort of postsecondary degree. And while the GED may have evolved into a entrance test for low-wage jobs, that's enforced by employers, Turner said. The GED is supposed to measure high school equivalency, not the skills required for an entry-level job.

Turner points out that in a survey of 2014 GED graduates, the same percentage (67) of graduates as in previous years said they took the GED to enroll in a college or career program. But of last year's group, 60 percent had already applied to postsecondary programs -- compared to an average of 35 percent -- and most had been accepted.

The National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium is in the process of surveying the 50 state departments of education to find out whether they agree with Turner’s assessment.

Lennox McLendon, executive director of the group, said he plans to ask about each state’s testing and pass rates, and whether there are differences between the three high school equivalency tests. So far, he’s not concerned by the lower number of test-takers and passers this year.

“That’s just the way the cycle goes,” McLendon said. “It’ll pick back up and a year from now, and we’ll be going full speed again.”

As evidence of that theory, Turner points to a surge in test-takers in the final months of 2014, as teachers have grown more comfortable with the material and the fear surrounding the new test has started to die down.

In many states, 40 percent of the year’s tests occurred between October and December, he said. Pass rates are also starting to improve. In one state, which Turner didn’t identify, 50 percent of test-takers were passing the math portion in the beginning of the year, compared to 73 percent in the second six months.

Some aren't convinced that's good news, though. Lois Quinn is senior scientist with the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who's studied the history of the GED in Wisconsin. She's one of several education and economics experts who’ve questioned the exam's value, citing research that shows GED-holders earn less and have less success in college than peers who have a traditional high school diploma. 

The GED is based on the assumption that students who do poorly in high school (or adults who haven’t had schooling in several years) can learn what is taught in four years in a matter of months, Quinn said. She acknowledges that the test can open the door to employment for some people. But in the long run, and especially for high school dropouts, the GED is a false promise, she said.

Given the current chaos in the market for high school equivalency exams, this could be an opportunity to talk about what type of education would better serve high school dropouts and adult learners, said Quinn. Instead, she said, the focus remains on teaching them how to pass a test.

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