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There's More to High School Equivalency Than the GED

An alternative test is gaining steam.

Photo Credit: igor kisselev / Shutterstock

You might know someone who didn’t finish high school. Chances are, you’ve asked, “Did you get your GED?” 

But here’s the thing: GED is a brand, not something anyone has ever earned. In fact, GED is owned by the U.K.-based, for-profit corporation Pearson (along with the American Council on Education, which gets a portion of the revenue). It has dominated the U.S. high school equivalency test market to the point that GED is to high school equivalency as Kleenex is to tissue. (You might know Pearson from John Oliver’s scathing Last Week Tonight report on its other standardized tests.)

Now that people and states are starting to become aware of that, states and educators alike are turning to other ways to give high school equivalency certifications. Some states, like Iowa, have scrapped the GED entirely.

The shift away from GED seems to have started when GED announced it was going to a computer-only test, eliminating the paper and pencil option entirely in 2014. That might sound good for data lovers, and it might sound good economically, on paper, but the reality, according to adult education providers, has been much different.

Alex Harris, state director of adult education with the Iowa Department of Education, says that when GED came out with its new computer-only test, “We felt that wasn’t going to meet the needs of our students.” Harris says eliminating the paper and pencil option negatively impacted older students, those in corrections facilities and those who didn’t have computers or internet in the home—a growing population in disenfranchised and marginalized communities. (One adult education provider we spoke with put the number of its students without a computer and internet in the home at about 50%.) 

GED says basic computer skills are essential for college and career readiness. Even filling out an application at McDonald’s is done by computer. “What we want to focus on is getting people prepared for what’s next,” says CT Turner, a spokesperson for GED. “Digital literacy is as important as reading and writing.”

Still, Iowa was skeptical of going computer-only, and in 2013 released a request for proposals. The state awarded U.S.-based non-profit ETS (known for the GRE) the opportunity to provide Iowans with their high school equivalency test, the HiSET

Amy Riker, executive director of the HiSET program, says ETS launched the HiSET in 2014 as a response to GED’s changes, including a price increase, the elimination of paper testing and changing the test to meet standards that weren’t being met by high schools. States, Riker says, wanted to make sure they had a voice—the credential, after all, is issued by the state, not by GED. As such, it’s portable to colleges, the military and employers. 

“States lost their voice behind the test vendor,” she explains. So far, HiSET has been adopted by 28 states and territories. “Many states had the term ‘GED’ in their legislative code… and that branding had to be removed,” before HiSET could be considered an administered high school equivalency test. “It’s not appropriate to have monopoly branding” in legislative code, she says.

Some states allow multiple tests. Michigan has recently permitted HiSET in addition to GED. But Iowa, says Harris, found it would be a burden to offer both.

In addition, Iowa just passed bipartisan state legislation that Harris says allows diverse pathways to high school equivalency without the test, including permitting high school credits and college credits to count together toward a diploma. It’s about “course completion” he says, “and being able to award those with foreign post-secondary degrees” a certification that translates in the U.S. 

“We don’t want to create burdens,” he stresses. “We felt it was the right thing to do, to be able to offer other avenues and pathways for achieving that credential.” After all, “You don’t graduate high school based on one test.” 

Riker says HiSET recognizes many students they serve—people in Montana, or rural Tennessee, for example—still don’t have internet access or the resources to perform well on computer-only tests. 

Harris says this is one of the reasons they went with HiSET in Iowa. “We know that participants sacrifice a lot to come in for testing. They take time off work, arrange transportation and childcare. If there’s a computer glitch or power failure, we can switch to paper, and that individual isn’t turned away, and we are still able to offer the test. We thought that was important. We recognize the sacrifice individuals are making to make this in their lives.”

Turner recognizes these issues, and stresses that “access to computers is key,” and adds that “we have a generation of adult learners that have never composed an essay on paper.”

GED uses an AI system to score its tests, including the essay portion, although according to Turner, there is a human scoring option and students can—and do—appeal. He adds that no student who has appealed an AI generated essay score has done better with a human scoring it.

When taking the test the first time, cost varies from state to state and test center to test center, all of which can charge fees along the way. Generally, HiSET is $50 and GED is $80, but after fees the GED cost can nearly double to $150. The majority of the time the test-taker pays for that cost out-of-pocket. While some states do have funding to cover some of that cost, most do not.

And then there’s re-taking the test. HiSET offers free re-testing three times in one year included in the initial fee. GED allows the test to be retaken twice for its initial fee. (Each test is made up of multiple smaller tests, so if one passes the math component but not the English component, they need only re-take the part they didn’t pass.) 

For many, being able to re-take and pass the test is crucial to their future.

McGorey says many obstables make obtaining a high school equivalency diploma difficult, including cultural barriers, language, lack of reliable public transit, lack of child care, and even employment. “People who didn’t have time—especially during seasonal work where they were working 12 hour shifts, even if we held the classes during the day and at night—they were unable to attend.”

But perhaps the biggest barrier is “the lack of success people have had in formal education and believing in themselves,” says McGorey. 

And that can lead to additional challenges down the line: Once they have a high school equivalency, then what? While more GED takers are enrolling almost immediately into college programs now than before the test was changed, the majority still do not go on to a college program, and the longer they are out of training, the more difficult it is for them to get in to any kind of further education or training program. “It’s tough enough to get them in [an adult education program] in the first place,” says Turner.

For states and adult education providers, “I think it’s important to recognize states have a choice,” of both tests and how they give a high school equivalency, says Harris. 

“These are incredibly hard assessments,” he adds. “It’s not an easy route. These are intended to test the level of high school completion. States take that seriously.”

And so do the students, who make sacrifices to move their lives, and their families, forward, outside standard public school systems.

Valerie Vande Panne is an AlterNet writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.

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