As he sits in a study room at Project Learn — a non-profit on Euclid Avenue that offers adult education programs — with sample questions for the GED (General Education Diploma) waiting on a computer screen, 29-year-old Derwin Williams explains why getting his diploma is so important. He wants to get into the construction trade, maybe as a roofer or drywall hanger, and he knows he needs a diploma to get into vocational technical classes to get that done.
Williams dropped out of East High School more than a decade ago, in part because of a gunshot wound that left him hospitalized for six months and required the removal of his kidney. He's had some legal problems since then too, mostly from a DUI conviction a few years ago, but he'll be sober three years this coming March. He started thinking about a GED when his probation program encouraged him to do so.
Williams is unemployed and has been studying for the four-part GED since January. In previous years, 11 months of prep would likely have given him a decent chance of success. But the test was radically changed in January, and like many, Williams hasn't yet made enough progress to take any of the four sections. According to some sample tests he's taken, he's getting close in the math and science portions, but is still pretty far out in the social science and language parts.
Williams' experience is pretty typical of those studying for the GED this year. Tutors say the old test, which had been around since 2002, usually required about six months of studying — 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 and required the exam be taken online instead of on paper — has made passing the GED test more difficult than anyone 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. This year, according to the latest numbers obtained by Scene, only about 55,000 have passed nationally. That is a 90-percent drop off from last year.
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 pretty much moved the goal posts way back. And that includes the incarcerated, where so many prison re-entry education programs include getting the high school drop-out population to pass the GED test.
Williams understands the test is hard, but doesn't have much perspective on how it has changed. "I know if I would have stayed in school things would have been different," he says. "But I know the only way I am going to get ahead is by working hard to pass this test. It's been hard studying but I think I might be getting close. So I just keep working."
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 70-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 new 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 Scene, about 350,000 fewer people will earn a GED nationally than in 2012, and close to 500,000 fewer than last year. The GED accounts for 12 percent of all the high school diplomas awarded each year.
In Ohio, 16,092 passed the test in 2012, and 19,976 did so in 2013, but only 1,458 have passed so far this year.
Other states have similar rates. The drop off in Texas was about 86 percent; Florida, about 77 percent; Michigan, about 88 percent.
About 2,100 prisoners in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections earned a GED in both 2012 and 2013. Only 97 have earned the GED in 2014.
Project Learn, the local program contracted to tutor inmates in the Cuyahoga County Jail, saw a total of 80 inmates pass the GED test in the past three years, but only one county jail inmate has passed so far this year.
Another local GED tutoring program, the Seeds of Literacy, had 131 of its students pass in the past two years, but only two so far this year.
The problems are myriad. Many think this test is 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."
When it was announced a few years ago that the test would change on 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 in 2014. 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 the new test. "We are freezing out a large portion of those who would have had a good chance of passing before, and we are doing that because there is a shift in what the test is measuring," said Robert Bivins, program director of Education at Work at Project Learn.
"It used to be that we measured adding and subtracting and what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776," Bivins continued. "But the Common Core standards are not about learning facts; they are about looking at information and then measuring how people understand applications and analysis. For the jail population, which basically dropped out of school in the sixth grade, understanding that is very hard. They don't have any basis for that kind of thinking."
But there is another reason for the small number of people passing the GED test in 2014: Hardly anyone is taking it this year. And that has as much to do with how the test is administered as 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, have no Internet access either.
Those making less than $25,000 clock in at similar rates regardless of their educational background. So many of those who need a GED 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 very start for two reasons: It's hard to build keyboard and mouse skills for a timed test without practice, and 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.
"We are just finding that students without a computer or credit cards are not able to keep up as well, and in studying for a test like this, it is easy to find reasons to quit," Bivins says. "The way this test has been set up has put barriers in front of people, when we should be doing a test where keeping the goals in front of them is what they see instead of more reasons to quit.
While a certain lack of access makes studying for the GED harder, the content itself makes it even more difficult.
And that raises the question that has dogged the GED test since its inception after World War II: Is the primary purpose of the test to measure a student's college preparedness? Or is it a measure of a dropout's willingness to achieve a goal that makes them more attractive to employers?
In other words, is the GED designed to measure whether a student can handle Jane Austen novels and polynomial equations, or whether that person has the wherewithal to stock shelves at Walmart or hang drywall? The current test suggests it is the former that seems to be more important. And while the old test seemed to have some "just showing up" success rate measurement attached, which in some eyes was a practical way to administer the GED, the new one seems to have none of that.