GED overhaul leaves Michiganders behind 

Nearly 500,000 fewer Americans will pass the GED in 2014 after a major overhaul to the test. Why? And who's left behind?

Sitting inside the New Prospect Learning Lab, a free GED (General Educational Development) testing laboratory on Livernois Avenue in Deroit that offers GED prep and a host of other adult education programs, 32-year-old Tiffany Collier emphasizes how important it is for her to get her diploma. Collier wants to be a nurse — "I love helping people"— a job she can't even consider without a GED.

She dropped out of high school around 15 years ago, pointing to a desire so many students consider at least once as the years of secondary education tick by: She wanted to be out, older, and done with school. Though she doesn't say as much, she essentially just lost interest and then quit.

"I was trying to grow up too fast," she says. Collier started thinking about getting her GED because she wanted to set an example for her three children. "I want to make them proud," she says.

But it's no easy task. Collier has a full load to deal with each day. She's a stay-at-home mom who lives in Warren with three children, a husband, and a mother who's diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"It's a learning experience," she says.

Collier is a charming woman with an infectious smile and has been studying for the four-part GED test since October 2014. She has high hopes of beginning a section or two in the coming weeks. Passing any sections after just three months of studying would be impressive: A new test was released in January 2014, and for many, it's taking much longer to make enough progress through all four sections, let alone one.

While her tutors acknowledge Collier has a determination to get her GED not commonly seen among others studying for their diploma this year, the test has caused some serious issues worth considering. Tutors say the old test, which had been around since 2002, usually required about six months of studying — about three to six hours a week — for a person of average intelligence to have a chance of passing. But the test changes, which implemented the controversial Common Core standards in many states and required the exam to be taken online instead of on paper, has made passing the GED test more difficult than most can remember.

The numbers are shocking: In the United States, according to the GED Testing Service, 401,388 people earned a GED in 2012, and about 540,000 in 2013. In 2014, according to the latest numbers obtained by Metro Times, only about 55,000 passed nationally, though a few sectors have yet to be included in that statistic. Still, there was about a 90 percent drop-off from 2013.

And there are serious repercussions. As national economic policy is emphasizing more adult education programs, and most jobs (even Walmart shelf stockers) require a high school diploma, the new GED test has essentially moved the goal posts way back. And that includes the incarcerated, where so many prison re-entry education programs include getting the high school dropout population to pass the GED test.

Collier knows the test is hard but doesn't have much perspective on how it has changed; it's a priority no matter what. "It's actually a good challenge," she says, adding, "I have a goal I've set. I want to go to nursing school as soon as possible.

"I know I'll fight until the end."

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Has the GED test always been hard? Some would say so. Especially if you are 20 years or more removed from high school and haven't thought of quadratic equations or Thomas Jefferson's verbiage since then. But for those trying to take the GED test in 2014, passage of the high school equivalency is probably less likely than at any other point in the 73-year history of the test.

The changes were made to bring the test up to date, in some people's eyes. That meant adapting the test to reflect the Common Core standards being taught in most high schools across the country, doing it online only and not on paper, and requiring more essays. The results have been dramatic.

Based upon preliminary findings by MT, about 350,000 fewer people will earn a GED nationally than in 2012, and close to 500,000 fewer than last year. Before the test changes, the GED accounted for 12 percent of all the high school diplomas awarded each year.

In Michigan, 10,290 passed the test in 2012, and 13,641 did so in 2013, but only 1,472 passed in 2014.

Other states have similar rates. The drop-off in Texas was about 86 percent; Florida, about 77 percent; in Michigan, those numbers work out to about 88 percent.

GED rates for prisoners in Michigan, however, don't appear to have been impacted by the changes: In 2012, 1,548 prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections earned a GED. The following year there was an increase to 2,467, and 2014 remained about the same, according to Chris Gautz, the department's spokesman. Unlike most states, in order to be paroled in Michigan, a prisoner serving a minimum two-year sentence for any crime committed after December 1998 must earn a high school diploma or GED certificate, Gautz says, though there is the possibility for an exemption.

Still, the problems with the test are myriad. Many think it's too hard, too focused on algebra and essays, too much analysis of history instead of knowing historical facts. But the main issue is: Who is the GED test for and what should it measure? Should it be geared toward determining if someone has the skills to make it in college, or the skills necessary to be employed and to move up to a better job? The GED has always struggled with servicing both groups, but right now, most GED test teachers feel the test has moved too far into measuring college preparedness.

"Raising the standards was an important thing to do, but without adequate teacher training and a significant investment in current technology, it left adult and correctional education students even further behind in educational achievement," says Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, the largest prison educational organization in the country. "It is a national tragedy that will continue to have repercussions for years."

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When it was announced a few years ago that the test would change Jan. 1, 2014, academic and educational consultants overseeing the new version predicted a slight downturn in passage rates and overall test takers. The reasoning: So many people would try to pass the test in 2013 because any sections they had previously passed wouldn't carry over once the new test began. This is why the number of people who passed the GED was slightly higher in 2013 than in 2012.

But those who have taught the test for a long time say the new test is so radically different that the dip in passage rate will not be a short blip as students and tutors adjust to it. "When you have 40-year math teachers scratching their heads ... it's really hard," says Shelly Ester, site director of the New Prospect Learning Lab, where Collier is tutored. "It requires a higher order of thinking.

"It's kind of a nightmare for some people."

It's not as if the problems with the new test were unexpected, either: Ester, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, and her colleague, Sharon Rowe, technical resources manager of the New Prospect Learning Lab, say they sounded the alarm when they saw what the new test would entail when the announcement came in 2012. They immediately said it would be too hard. But besides calls for alarm from some in the academic community, little attention was paid to the changes.

And there is another reason for the small number of people passing the GED test in 2014: Hardly anyone took it. And that has as much to do with how the test is administered than the content. The previous test was administered with pen and paper, but this version can only be taken on a computer. And here's the kicker: More than half the people in the U.S. who do not have a high school diploma do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home. The same number, not surprisingly, do not have Internet access either.

Many of those who need a GED the most — those without a high school diploma and with a poverty-rate income — do not have a computer or Internet access, which puts them far, far behind from the start for two reasons: It's hard to build keyboard and mouse skills for a timed test without practice, and the GED Testing Service (the company that administers the test) makes it maddeningly hard even to print sample questions to study at home.

To get sample tests, students must have access to the Internet to take them, pay $6 for each sample test section with a credit card (if their tutoring program won't buy it for them, and most don't), and have an active email account. All of that makes having a computer and Internet access paramount to passage.

"It's people who don't have a high school diploma, and without a high school diploma, you're not making a lot of money," Rowe says. The test in Michigan used to cost roughly $30, depending on how much in additional fees was tacked on by testing centers. Now, the cost is closer to $150. As Rowe and Ester put it, this amounts to additional barriers for those who already have to deal with the day-to-day grind of life.

More by Ryan Felton

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