Blog: The Educated Reporter

States Balk as GED Gets More Expensive

Life for the nearly 40 million Americans without a high school diploma could be about to get harder as testing companies who create high school equivalency exams are rolling out tougher – and in some cases — more expensive tests.

Beginning in January 2014, the largest high school equivalency test maker – GED Testing Service – will issue assessments that are aligned with the more academically challenging Common Core state standards, likely resulting in an increase of test takers who will fail.

In many states, the price test takers pay will also rise because the new GED is taken entirely on computer, a transition that began happening last year. That change means testing centers will have to invest more money up front to purchase the required gear. And while in the past states varied in how much they subsidized the cost of taking the GED, there’s less clarity on what the price for test takers will look like in 2014.

Some states have balked at the new GED, citing cost, lack of time for testing centers to train test takers, and the fact that the test is now run by a for-profit organization. This pushback has opened the door for other testing companies to provide high school equivalency assessments they say are less expensive for states and test-takers.

The Education Writers Association hosted a webinar on this sea change in adult education this week, bringing together representatives from GED and testing giants ETS and McGraw Hill, as well as a researcher on the economics of adult learning.

[Download event slides here]

Still recovering from the budget tsunami caused by the great recession, several states are eyeing the lower cost of new alternatives to the GED. Mike Johnson, who works on McGraw Hill’s high school equivalency exam called TASC, says unlike the forthcoming GED test, his company will give test takers the option of a paper version and will cost $52 – less than half the $120 GED is charging test-takers in states without subsidies. Amy Riker of ETS’s HiSET test says their company will charge $50, have a paper option, and issue tests in Spanish or English. Of the roughly 700,000 GED takers last year, 30,000 were issued a test in Spanish. GED and TASC will offer two free retests; HiSET says it’ll have unlimited retests for test takers.

All three testing companies say they’re aligned with the Common Core.

Already, a handful of states have ditched GED for either HiSET or TASC. A smaller number have partnered with both companies while some states will offer its residents tests from all three firms.

According to all of the test makers, the push for tougher tests is, in part, a response to employers who worry the current crop of assessments is too easy and is a poor barometer of workforce preparedness. GED says test takers who pass its battery of assessments have skills that are on par with the top three-fifths of high school students. But the labor market seems to prefer workers who graduated from high school. Data also show more high school graduates than GED credential recipients go on to college. 

Research from the University of Chicago finds that the unemployment figure for adults with a high school equivalency exam credential is higher than that of high school graduates. In fact, it’s virtually the same as the unemployment rate for high school dropouts.

One explanation for the discrepancy is the role of character skills, which are better honed in classrooms than during test prep for high school equivalency exams, Tim Kautz of University of Chicago says.

And GED programs may help promote an uptick in high school dropouts, Kautz says, as they appear to be an easier threshold to cross than earning a diploma. 



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