Nearly 500,000 Fewer Americans Will Pass the GED in 2014 After a Major Overhaul to the Test. Why? And Who's Left Behind?

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Cilia are very thin, hair-like projections from cells. They are 2.0 x 10 to the negative fourth power. What is the maximum number of cilia that would fit side by side – without overlapping – across microscope slide that is 25 millimeters wide. Answer choices: a. 8.0 x 10 to the negative sixth power, b. 1.25 x 10 to the negative third power, c. 8.0 x 10 to the second power, d. 1.25 x 10 to the fifth. [Editor's note: an earlier version of this story formatted the negative powers incorrectly.]

"The old test was about 25 percent algebra," says Dan McLaughlin, the program director at Seeds of Literacy. "The new test is about 55 percent algebra, and there is very little basic math on it. Even our tutors have had a hard time with some parts of the math test."

The science section pushed students further too. One sample question asks the test taker to interpret, via an equation, whether energy is stored, created or produced when glucose, water, oxygen and carbon dioxide are combined. The old test, McLaughlin says, required the students to know some of the elements on the periodic table, but did not have them analyze how the element reacted with each other.

And in the writing portion of the test, the previous test asked for one personal essay, the topic of which might be: "Who is someone you think is successful and why?" The purpose of the essay was to see if the respondent knew how to put nouns and verbs and prepositions together in proper order. In other words, it tried to determine if could you understand what they were saying, but it didn't really care about the content.

But the new test flips that around. There are now two essays, and they are graded not on grammar but on reasoning. For example, one of the sample questions in the language portion of the test asks the tester to read two essays on daylight saving time — one in favor, one against — and then write an essay about which one is better and why. Another example is writing an essay about the importance of the concept of "sustainability" within the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Another asks a test taker whether a schools decision to expel a student refusing to salute the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance is covered by the freedom of religion or freedom of speech, and how Thomas Jefferson's writing fits into the question at hand. The essay will be judged, in part, on "your own knowledge of the enduring issue and the circumstances surrounding the case to support your analysis."

And again, grading is focused on analysis and interpretation rather than sentence structure, and the GED website says a passing essay might exhibit "draft writing." "We do not hold test-takers to a standard of very formal conventions at all," it says. "Rather, we understand that they have minimal time for proofreading and we can accept diction that is significantly more casual than, for example, what might be required on a resume cover letter. The language requirements are not as high as 'Edited American English.'"

So the test measures knowledge of how many tiny cell hairs can fit on a slide, the energy production of an equation, Thomas Jefferson's analysis of a West Virginia court case, and interpretation of the concept of environmental sustainability. All in four test sections that have to be completed in about seven hours. On a computer. By people who may have limited computer skills. And no spell check.


Steve Miller has been studying for a few hours at the Seeds of Literacy tutoring offices at West 25th and Clark Avenue. It is a cold and rainy Tuesday, and he is dressed in a multi-colored hoodie and block "C" Indians cap. He is 23, gets minimal Social Security Disability benefits for bipolar disorder, and has been working on his GED since February. By his own admission, he's not even close to passing any of the sections. Maybe math first, and the other three after that.

Miller wants to be a roofer or a tile layer or land some other construction job, and knows he needs the GED to get things moving. He dropped out of East High School in the 10th grade, and "never did much of anything in school and got in trouble a lot." He says the test is "pretty hard," and says he would rather take it on paper, "because I think I write better and faster with a pen, and I'm just not very quick with a keyboard."

One of his instructors is Jim Redmond, a retired industrial sales rep who lives in Westlake and volunteers at Seeds of Literacy a few days a week. He has seen how the test changes have taken their toll on the students. "Even the occasional students we get who are extremely bright are taking very much longer," he says. "But it is even more difficult to keep the ones around who really have to work hard. It's tough to get people to commit to those for more than a year, and we are seeing that right now.

"The test is just not very practical," Redmond says. As he looks over 20 or so people studying, he adds that "90 percent of the people here aren't going to college if they pass the test and to say that the purpose of the GED is to prepare people for college is foolish. These people just want to improve their jobs. We used to have trade schools and apprentice programs, but now we have to measure people as if they are going to college. Well, not everyone is going to college and we shouldn't pretend everyone should."

And that is precisely the problem with the current test. If the previous version didn't serve the college-driven population well, the current version doesn't serve the job-driven population at all.

John Eric Humphries, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Chicago and co-author of The Myth of Achievement Tests (University of Chicago Press, 2014) says the key warning sign is not how few are passing, but how few are taking the new test. "The most shocking thing is that people taking it has plummeted," he says. "And we have to find out the reason for that. Is it the computer skills needed, the cost, or the content, or a combination?"

Humphries thinks the problem is not so much the Common Core standards used for the questions, "because this is a fair test of what graduates of high school should know, and if that is how we determine math or English or computer skills, the GED should be a reflection of that. Over time the GED instructors and the students will catch up with that.

"But the real problem is that we use the same assessment for a job parking cars as we do for getting into college with the current GED," Humphries says. "Those are completely different tasks and different questions we should be using. But we use the same test for both."

There has been movement through the years to create different tests to measure different abilities, and the notion of a GED for college admissions and GED for work qualifications has been bandied about. Ten states have either opted out of the Pearson test and offer one of two competing tests, or offer all three. Ohio may move to another test, according to Gary Cates, senior vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, which administers the test in Ohio, because of the huge drop off in people passing the test this year.

"The numbers are not good, and we recognized going in we would have some issues," Cates tells Scene. "The test is harder because it was designed for the Common Core standards, but we also recognize that the GED is important for people to keep or get a job. We will keep all the options we have open."

And a part of the assessment is the cost. The U.S. Department of Education spends about $564 million a year on Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) programs. Ohio gets about $15 million of that federal money, and adds about $7 million in state funding to the adult education programs. Ohio does not keep track of how much of the $22 million is spent specifically on GED teaching programs, but it does make one wonder about how the public investment is being served by fewer GEDs being earned because of the changes.

If the state is spending $22 million on adult education programs and 20,000 Ohioans get a GED, that might be a good investment. But spending $22 million and getting 2,000 GEDs might not be.

In addition, studies have shown that prison recidivism rates decrease by about 30 percent if the incarcerated take educational programs while locked up. And for every dollar spent on education, the savings is $4 to $5 in future costs because they stay out more.

"We have seen that doing education programs for those in prison is a good investment, but if they aren't seeing a reasonable payoff to their efforts, there is a real danger that they aren't going to perhaps buy into other changes they need to make," says Dr. Lois Davis, senior researcher at Rand Corp., who has studied education programs in prisons.

"If the state of Ohio goes from more than 2,000 prisoners getting a GED each year down to a few hundred, there are just going to be many problems that the state has to deal with," Davis says. "The numbers are shocking; I am surprised the prison officials aren't sounding the alarms more on what is happening here."

The problems for Bivins from Project Learn are that we are pushing a group out of the equation that doesn't need any more shoving out. "We are telling people they need to have a GED to get a job and they can only apply online with a computer," he says. "But then those same people are frozen out of the process because they don't have a computer in the first place. Then we tell them they need to know more algebra to pass the GED test so they do better in college when they have no intention of going to college.

"The people who needed to pass this test had to work hard before to do it, but now we've made it much harder and there is no good reason for that. We tell people in jail they need to get a GED while they are in there, but then we set it up so they can't accomplish what we told them they need to do," he says. "Think of the message that sends. How do you think you would approach things when you get out? You can't set people up for failure, but we are freezing a large portion of people out of the process right now."

*The 2014 GED statistics are based upon information from the state agencies that oversee the testing, and is the testing data for the year up to late October and early November 2014, depending on the agency.

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