For generations of high school dropouts, the GED has been a passport to better jobs, trade schools and college.
Now the old high school equivalency test is going away. No more paper. No more fill-in-the-dot multiple choice. No more "pencils down."
Starting in January, the old test will be replaced by a version designed to make people more career- and college-ready.
But it’s also harder, "more problem-solving-based, more reading and more writing," said Deborah Briggs, director of a Missouri adult education office in Independence.
And it’s all digital. Tapping on a keyboard. Clicking a mouse. Staring into a computer screen.
That’s what troubles Gayle Jaynes, who has been helping students prepare for the General Educational Development exam for a dozen years at the Independence testing center. Many of her students, she said, may have lacked the computer skills they’d need to get the new high school equivalency certificate.
"We get students in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are coming back to get their GED," Jaynes said. "We can teach them the computer skills, but it is a slow process."
But others say testing by computer will benefit GED students.
"It provides them with an additional skill they will learn at the testing centers where they prepare for the tests," said Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "It is a necessary skill these days that they will need anytime they apply for a job. Job applications today are online."
The current test is given in five sections over one day. If a student passes three sections, but fails the others, he can go home, study harder and then retake the last two sections.
For those students, the new test brings a catch: Starting next January, students who have passed some but not all sections on the paper GED must take the entire test over on computer.
Jaynes expects to see a rush of people signing up to complete their GED the traditional way before year’s end.
The GED originated as a tool for educating young service members returning from World War II, and then spread to become a common pathway for adults who didn’t finish school to earn a high school equivalency certificate.
Although it has been updated and tweaked over the years, the test has always measured the major academic skills and concepts associated with four years of regular high school instruction in writing, reading, social studies, science and mathematics.
The new test was announced about two years ago after the nonprofit General Educational Development testing program was purchased by Pearson VUE Testing, a for-profit test management company. Pearson partnered with the American Council on Education, the coordinating body for the nation’s higher-education institutions, to take the GED program through the biggest redesign in its 70-year history.
Test takers pay $40 for the current GED. The Pearson version will cost $120.
Now that the GED is part of Pearson, a private company, other testing services are bidding against Pearson to provide high school equivalency testing.
Kansas education officials said that for now they plan to stay with Pearson. But the Board of Regents may review other options in the future, said Vanessa Lamoreaux, the Regents’ spokeswoman.
In Missouri, educators concluded that it would cost too much for the state to produce its own high school equivalency test. They are considering at least two other testing services that offer their own high school equivalency exams, but the Pearson test is in the mix.
The new test is based on core education standards adopted by 47 states, including Missouri and Kansas, Briggs said.
While the new test is more challenging in some ways, she said, the current seven-hour GED exam is "grueling."
Education officials say that in general only about 60 percent of high school students pass the GED on their first attempt.
"I tell students they are better off staying in high school or, if they are younger than 21, going back to high school to finish is easier than taking the GED," Jaynes said.
Missouri is already offering the GED test by computer at some pilot sites, including the Metropolitan Community College-Business and Technology in Kansas City.
"We have already given hundreds of tests since we started the pilot in May," said Becky Breit, testing coordinator at the site.
Because the computer test is offered so often, students can easily take one part at a time. "They can study for one section and then come in and take just that section," she said.
Breit thinks taking the test section by section turns out better scores. She said students who’ve taken the test on the computer have done better overall than paper-test takers.
"It’s a long test, so just imagine that after five or six hours the test taker is tired and may not do as well on the last sections," she said. Besides, she said, they probably retain more of a subject when they study for one section at a time.