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GED Faces New Rivals for High School Dropouts


A teacher with a GED prep class in Kansas City, Mo.

Photograph by Orlin Wagner/AP Photo

A teacher with a GED prep class in Kansas City, Mo.

The decades-long hegemony of the General Education Development test over American dropouts hoping for a high school equivalency degree is coming to an end next year—and just as the GED becomes more difficult, more expensive, and available only on computer. Two alternative tests are set to enter the market from different providers, and states such as New York are abandoning the GED entirely.

The GED was introduced in 1942 to help returning World War II veterans without high school diplomas get back on track and take advantage of the G.I. Bill, and the exam became available to civilians in the late 1940s. By 2008, GEDs accounted for 12 percent of high school credentials issued.

The value of getting a GED, sometimes derided as the “Good Enough Diploma,” has long been up for debate. The test has undoubtedly opened doors for many Americans, putting some on the path to college and better job prospects. But research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman also shows that GED recipients generally perform no better economically than high school dropouts.

One can only hope that some competition and tougher tests will win equivalency-diploma recipients more credibility and provide a boost to America’s underperforming labor market.

Until recently, the test was run by the nonprofit American Council on Education. In 2011, the group joined with the for-profit Pearson (PSO) to take the test private, and the base cost for taking the GED spiked from about $50 to $120—a serious blow to the wallets of GED takers, many of whom are underemployed or eking out a minimum-wage living.

Once the GED shed its nonprofit status, two new players got into the game: the for-profit CTB/McGraw-Hill and the nonprofit ETS. Both will start offering their tests—the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) and the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET)—in January 2014. The flat fees will be $52 and $50, respectively, although costs vary from state to state and may not cover additional services such as those included in the GED fee.

“When the GED was purchased by Pearson and became a for-profit organization, states were really concerned about changes being implemented,” says Amy Riker, national director of the HiSET program. “They wanted to make sure there was paper and computer access and that the cost was kept relatively low.” CTB/McGraw-Hill also says it was approached by government officials worried about a Pearson-led GED monopoly.

Next year, several states will ditch the GED entirely. Maine, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Louisiana will offer only the HiSET, while New York and Indiana will offer only the TASC. Some states will let test takers and test centers choose between the high school equivalency options.

Meanwhile, GED Testing Service defends its price hike and the forthcoming changes to the GED. “The status quo was just not working,” says Nicole Chestang, executive vice president. The new GED, she says, will incorporate a more comprehensive test prep and college readiness program as well as more rigorous standards than the competition. The GED’s competitors say their tests will also meet high standards.

While the HiSET and TASC will offer a pencil-and-paper option, the GED will be available only on computer—another source of potential concern. “Contrary to popular opinion, not every person has a computer or iPad at home,” one Florida teacher told the Atlantic. Educators also complain that they do not know what to expect from the new tests or how to prepare students.

Americans have never had an easy time passing the GED, even when the only test in town was less challenging. Preparation will be key. “We have a national crisis on our hands,” says Chestang. “Millions of adults without high school diplomas aren’t prepared for college or for the careers of the future.”

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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