This Shouldn’t Be So Hard to Figure Out

Is it reasonable to still be making up our minds as to whether the new “tougher” GED makes good policy sense? This sentence from a recent Dow Jones Business News article on the dramatic drop in the number of GED test-takers got my attention:

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

You know who is likely not torn about it? The kid who can’t get a minimum wage job because he doesn’t have a diploma, and who can’t put the time in to pass the new, more difficult GED. Pretty sure they are going to go with “bad.” Randy Trask, the president of the GED Testing Service, says in the same article that the GED “was becoming irrelevant” before the changes, but for people without a high school diploma, it was and remains very relevant. I realize a high school diploma is not enough for most of the jobs that pay a decent wage, and that we want to encourage people to get into career pathway programs and integrated training and into college etc., but I’ll never understand why it would ever make sense as a matter of public policy to make high-school equivalency any harder than it needs to be.

“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?”

This is not an unreasonable question. But at this point, it might be time to take the debate outside of the usual policy circles and ask actual test-takers and potential test takers what they think. If our adult education system was truly learner-centered, not only in terms of instruction, but policy as well—that is, if we had a system in which adult learners had a major voice in policy discussions and decisions—this would be a much easier question to answer. Lacking that, a survey of the target population might help us figure it out.

At the end of the day, this should not be a hard one to call. If, on balance, the new test ends up being more of a barrier to the people it’s designed to serve than an opportunity, it should and probably will be considered a failure. Arguing for more career pathways or integrated models or whether adult education works at all actually obfuscates what should be a fairly simple question, which is whether the test has or hasn’t created an unfair and unreasonable barrier to adults and out-of-school youth seeking high school equivalency. (It’s useful to remember, by the way, that many people who take the GED—maybe the majority—aren’t enrolled in or have any contact with the adult education system at all.)

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.”

I think sometimes policy people (me included, when I’m wearing that hat) forget what it actually looks like on the ground in this business, and end up missing the obvious. We can disagree about a lot of things in adult education policy, but I don’t think any of us want to be in the losing hope business.

One thought on “This Shouldn’t Be So Hard to Figure Out

  1. There was an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal about the GED test and how difficult it is. It went on to discuss how making it so incredibly difficult isn’t helping people get basic jobs such as Starbucks (which offers excellent benefits) and fast food jobs that can lead to management positions. It was a great article.

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