No One Could Have Predicted…

More discouraging news, this time from WRVO in New York:

New York replaced the GED because the test’s price tag was set to double this year. The new test gives students the same credentials – the equivalent of a high school diploma. Statewide pass rates are down by four percent after the switch, compared to 2012. The number of test-takers also fell by half.

First of all, that is a classic example of a buried lead, in paragraph form. I view a 4% pass rate drop as actually pretty good news, considering that they’ve switched to a completely different exam. The real news is that the number of test-takers has fallen by half. That is not an “also”—that is the story.

And to what do we attribute this dramatic decrease in the number of test-takers? In states that stuck with the GED, the drop off is attributed by critics to the higher cost and difficulty of the revised GED. In New York, they have a different problem:

Bruce Carmel, director at the Bronx Youth Center and a co-chair at the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy, says there was a lot of misinformation about the new test.“You heard some people saying, ‘Oh, there’s no more GED,” he says. “So when people heard there was no more GED test, a lot of people thought it was over and you couldn’t get your high school equivalency diploma anymore.”

Sometimes it seems like if we had tried to come up with a plan to intentionally discourage adults from earning their high school equivalency we could not have done a better job. I know this is not in fact what anyone intended (including the test publishers), and I don’t want to the discount the heroic work that the adult education community has done to transition to these new exams. We’d be in even worse shape without their efforts. (And I wish the media would pay as much attention to that as they do to the poor numbers.) Nor is this a criticism of the decision in New York to replace the GED. But the dramatic drop we are experiencing around the country in the number of people seeking a high school equivalency diploma as a result of these changes should not have been unexpected. Some honest, no-finger-pointing reflection on how we ended up in such a situation might help us take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And while eventually this all may eventually shake out for the better, let’s not forget about the folks who gave up on high school equivalency during this transition, and what the future likely holds for them.

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.

Breaking News: Many People in Prison Eventually Leave Prison

From a Seattle Times investigative piece on what appears to be a a pretty impressive prison labor scam in Washington:

While lawmakers have pushed to increase the number of inmate workers, they’ve limited the educational opportunities that could help offenders find work outside of prison.

As part of a “get tough on crime” effort, the Washington Legislature in 1995 passed a law prohibiting state money from being used for higher education in prisons. Some taxpayers had griped that inmates were getting college courses for free.

Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat from Kirkland who serves as deputy majority leader, views the CI jobs as “basic skill” work that may only help former inmates find very low-paying jobs. The better use of tax dollars would be for higher education for higher-skilled jobs. (my emphasis)

The fact that people in prison are often serving sentences that eventually lead to release does seems to escape policymakers sometimes. I’m not sure I understand what the argument is for blocking prisoners’ access to things that are likely to decrease the likelihood that they will commit crimes again once released. But I’m all ears if you have one.

Perhaps the answer has something to do with the fact that most people leaving prison aren’t headed for the communities where those policymakers live.

Does a High School Diploma Add Labor Market Value to the GED?

Interesting reporting here, deep inside a story on D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s strategies to improve the D.C. graduation rates, on the debate over whether GED passers in the District of Columbia should be awarded a high school diploma, instead of the high school equivalency credential that is currently awarded:

During a meeting with OSSE officials this month, some board members had questions about the proposal to give a diploma, rather than a credential, to students who pass the GED. As of early December, 374 D.C. residents had taken the GED this year.In the District, you must be 18 to take the test, and many test-takers are older. But the shift could have a significant effect on graduation rates at alternative schools that offer GED preparation classes, such as Ballou STAY, which reported a 4 percent four-year graduation rate in 2013.

Currently, 13 states, including Maryland, award diplomas to those who pass the GED. City officials maintain that those who pass the test are demonstrating the same cognitive skills and abilities as a high school graduate, and a diploma could give them a better chance at getting a job or pursuing higher education.The GED was revised this year to align with Common Core academic standards, and the threshold for passing the test is based on how a sample of high school graduating seniors perform on it.

“I think it’s a valid approach, but I don’t think it’s the same” as actually attending and finishing high school, Laura Slover, an outgoing board member from Ward 3, said during a State Board meeting this month. She recommended that if GED recipients receive a diploma, they should be reported separately.

Some research shows that although GED test-takers can demonstrate comparable cognitive skills, they are less likely to demonstrate life skills such as perseverance that students develop by reporting to school day in and day out.

Great reporting by the Post‘s Michael Alison Chandler. A helpful primer on the issue not just in D.C. but in other states where this discussion is also taking place.

I’m not close to the local D.C. adult education scene anymore, so no special insights here, but I would just add a couple of quick thoughts:

  • Does the fact that the neighboring state of Maryland does award a high school diploma to GED graduates put D.C. GED recipients at a competitive disadvantage? I have no idea, but it’s sort of implied above.
  • There is much enthusiasm in the adult education policy world over initiatives that provide high school or high school equivalency faster for those who have dropped out of school, and in my limited anecdotal experience, not a lot of discussion about the quality and value of such initiatives for students over the long-term. If your system tends to use the number of diplomas or credentials awarded as the primary metric for assessing such initiatives, that’s not surprising.
  • I get that for someone who dropped out of school, earning a diploma quickly may be attractive, and thus encourage more dropouts to return to school, but I would think dual enrollment opportunities that offer opportunities for earning college credit while working toward that diploma (or equivalent) would do the same, and potentially have more lasting value. In any case, evidence that either really works as a motivating factor would be helpful.