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.

USA Today: “Tougher GED Tests Mean Fewer Take Exam, Pass”

In case you missed it, earlier this month, USA Today published a pretty good article about the revised GED and its new competitors in the high school equivalency testing market. The piece includes a very handy interactive map showing which tests have been adopted in each state.

One minor clarification to the story: Nicole Chestang, who is quoted, actually left her position at the GED Testing Service at the beginning of the year.

The World Did Not End on January 1st

I get the feeling from talking to reporters covering the GED revamp that some are working under the assumption that the entire adult education system is in the process of imploding in the wake of the official launch of the new test at the start of the year.

The GED test has typically undergone a revision every decade or so. True, the 2014 changes, particularly the switch to a computer-only exam, and the increase in the cost, are likely to have more dramatic effects than previous revisions, but those effects are going to roll out gradually over the course of the next few years. We don’t know yet, for example, the extent to which computer-based testing will be a barrier for some who want to take the test, and we won’t really know—beyond individual anecdotes—until the new exam has been in place for a few years. In the short terms, there will be plenty of individual stories suggesting that the critics are right, and also many success stories (you can count on the GED Testing Service publicizing the success stories!)—but until we can study overall trends over a period of at least a few years, I would caution people from drawing broad conclusions from individual stories. (Not that I think we should ignore the stories—I’m definitely going to keep passing them along—I just think we need to understand the limitations this kind of evidence.)

We also won’t know for a while whether the efforts to align test content with new common academic standards for high schools is making much of difference to adult leaners, or providing more value to the high school credentials they earn by virtue of passing one of these exams. Reporters need to be skeptical of claims made by anyone before a reasonable amount of data is in. That holds true not just for the GED folks, but their competitors as well: CTB/McGraw-Hill’s TASC exam, and the Educational Testing Service’s HiSET.

I’ve been critical of the GED Testing Service’s rollout of the new test. Early on, I think even they would agree that communication with state adult education offices and the field was not great. I worry about how the switch from a non-profit business model to a for-profit business model in a marketplace with limited resources is going to work. The GED Testing Service’s aggressive marketing campaign has been, at best, an odd fit in the adult education world. I’m dubious about claims made by computer-based testing proponents that preparing for a computer-based exam provides learners with “real-world” computer skills much beyond the skills required to take a test on a computer—again, until more evidence is in. I’m definitely worried about imposing unnecessary barriers to adult learners without evidence that the benefits justify it. And I’m not immune to making dire predictions—if you comb the archives of this blog, you’ll surely find some. But I’m also not dismissing what teachers and others who have been working diligently over the last year to make this adjustment are saying—some are quite effusive in their praise of the new test and feel that the switch to computer-based is the way to go.

The point is, we have a long way to go before we know much about the impact of all these changes. I hope reporters who have jumped on this story looking for disaster this month will return in a year or two to look at what has actually unfolded.