High-School Equivalency Degree Loses its Dominant Position

February 09, 2015

For more than seven decades, the GED has reigned as the gold standard for high-school-equivalency certificates, a time-honored way for dropouts, immigrants and late bloomers to demonstrate familiarity with educational basics and get a foothold in the job market.

But the new GED, which is more expensive in many states and harder to pass for test takers, has provided an opening for competing products. Already, 10 states have chosen an alternative to the GED, seven additional states offer two or three tests, and state officials in Washington and New Mexico are considering new options.

The competition comes on the heels of a 2011 joint venture between Pearson PLC and nonprofit American Council on Education, which previously administered the GED and owns the intellectual property. When the nonprofit realized in 2009 that it couldn’t cover the costs of a GED overhaul, which ranged from $40 million to $50 million, it asked other testing groups to partner. Pearson was the only one to agree.

Pearson and the council worked together to implement a more-difficult, computer-based test in line with 2013 state standards. States quickly started looking for substitutes to the GED, which has a base price for test takers of $80.

“They built a Cadillac, and everyone wants a Chevy,” said Anthony Carnevale, an economist who studies education and the labor market at Georgetown University.

But backers say there is merit in raising the bar, to give the high-school equivalency more value in the job market. “I believe the GED was becoming irrelevant,” said Randy Trask, president of GED Testing Service, referring to the old test, which was based on 1998 benchmarks. “It was not serving anyone well, especially people who see this as a magical passport to a better life.”

Now, others are jumping in. Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit testing company, began offering its own high-school equivalency exam, called the HiSET, last year, and aims to expand beyond its current 13 states, marketing itself as the “more accessible, affordable alternative.”

McGraw-Hill Education now offers the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC, test in nine states and is bullish about what will come in future years. “There will be more states looking at alternatives to the GED,” said Peter Cohen, president of the U.S. group at McGraw-Hill Education.

The exams’ cost per student varies by state, depending on how much each state subsidizes. The GED’s base price is $80, the HiSET’s is $50, and the TASC’s is $54. The latter two offer paper-and-pencil versions, while the GED doesn’t.

About 250,000 students took the GED in 2014, and 60% passed it, down from about 820,000 students in 2013, with a 75% passing rate. While GED officials say this precipitous drop is in part because students rushed to take an older version of the GED in 2013, critics believe the new GED is an unrealistic—and thus unfair—test for adult learners.

David Spring, who founded the website called “Restore GED Fairness” with his wife and fellow educator, Elizabeth Hanson, said that the new GED test questions are too difficult for the average high-school senior and put too much pressure on the GED test-takers, many of whom need the credential to apply for minimum-wage jobs.

“We’re talking about people who want to work at McDonald’s or as a hairdresser,” said Mr. Spring, a retired math teacher.

Economists and policy makers are torn over whether a tougher test is good or bad.

“Some test takers may have the simple need to work at Starbucks, they don’t need to analyze a Shakespeare play,” said Larry Condelli of the Workforce and Lifelong Learning program at the not-for-profit American Institutes for Research. “Then again, if you give them a lesser education for a specific purpose, are you really helping them?”

In general, employers support new ways of testing of basic educational skills, as long as they don’t stop people from taking the test, said Andy Van Kleunen, chief executive of the National Skills Coalition, a workforce policy organization that brings together businesses, labor and education groups.

A better approach to help people get jobs is to combine training in basic skills with vocational programs, he said. “Standalone adult literacy programs do not do a great job of preparing people for skilled jobs,” he said.

Adult-learning instructor Marcia Leister has felt the impact of the new GED test at her technical college in Bellingham, Wash., a state where currently only the GED is offered. Of about 120 students she taught last year, about 10 people took the test, about a quarter of the number in a typical year, and only one person passed it, she said.

“My students are extremely frustrated by the new test,” she said. “They are losing hope.”