KPBS. Feb 17, 2014. Some of students in Trenton Watkin's adult education class look like they could still be in high school. Others look like they could have grandchildren in high school. But each of them is there to prepare to take the GED. For decades the General Educational Development test has been a ticket to entry level jobs and higher education for Americans who didn't finish high school.
Myesha Jones has been taking classes to get ready for the GED since September at San Diego Community College District's Educational Cultural Complex in Mountain View. The 35-year-old mother of two wants to study psychology.
“I wanted to go to college," she said. "Because I took time off because I had my kids, to raise them. But now I have a junior and a senior so I decided to go back for myself.”
Her classmate Bonnie Arias started studying for the GED three years ago, more than 30 years after dropping out of high school in 10th or 11th grade to get a job. She hopes passing the tests will hep get her back into the work force.
“I was injured at work when I was 30 years old, when I was working at Pizza Hut," she said. "So I thought, maybe, someone might hire me with a little bit of knowledge.”
But the finish line they’re working toward moved on Jan. 1. One morning during the second week of the new semester Watkins was giving his first lesson on square roots — just one of the new topics GED test takers will have to be prepared for this year.
”We’ve had to toss in some new math topics as well as language arts," he said. "They switched the essay from a basic five-paragraph essay based upon opinion to now it being an evidence-based essay. So that now the students have to learn to cite evidence use quotations and things like that.”
The GED Testing Service, the company that designs the exams, revamped the tests this year to put them more in line new expectations for high school graduates under the Common Core standards 45 states have adopted for math and English.
Test takers now have to pass four instead of five exams. They have to be prepared with more critical thinking and complex problem solving skills and to do more writing in subject areas like math and science. Pencil and paper are out too, the new tests have to be taken on a computer.
“This raises the bar," said Lorie Crosby-Howell, dean of San Diego Community College’s GED program. "I read some research that even the most prepared students who leave high school or adult ed and still four levels below where they need to be to be successful in college. So with raising the bar with the new GED, teaching the college and career readiness skills, is exactly what’s needed right now.”
According to 2009 census data, people who completed the old GED tests earned less than those with traditional high school diplomas and were far less likely to pursue or complete a college degree.
But those statistics didn’t make the changes more appealing to Myesha Jones, who said she was nervous when she first heard the news. After a few days back in class, though, she said the work seems manageable.
“The class is the same, it’s just more new material and I think we go a little bit more in depth with the material,” she said.
Plenty of the students Watkins works with were nervous, he said. But so far they've tackled the new math topics without problems.
"They seem to be adjusting pretty well and haven’t run into any real sticky situations yet," he said. "But we haven’t really dug into the writing yet either, so hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to get some more information in regards to that.”
Writing about what they read still has Bonnie Arias concerned. She said picking out the main idea in a reading passage can be a challenge. She's determined but less confident about being able to pass the new version of the test.
“I said ‘Oh no! I’m not going to go in and pay for a test where I could fail it.’ Especially at the end,” she said.
Taking, and failing, the tests will cost students more now. There isn't a fixed price for GED tests in California, but at the testing center closest to the Educational Cultural Complex taking all parts of the GED will now cost $140, up from $125 last year. Those preparing for the tests also have to pay $6 for practice exams, which used to be free.
About 20 percent of the students enrolled in the adult education classes along side Arias and Jones will be paying for the tests twice — they tried and failed to pass the previous version of the exams and any passing scores are now void.
Getting ready for the new tests is going to be a bigger commitment for most of the program’s students, who face hurdles most traditional high school students don't, according to Sheyla Castillo, a counselor in the adult education program.
“Some of them are just trying to get by," she said, "they’re single parents who are addressing many different needs. More than anything, in order to pass it’s going to now take them longer, in order to achieve that more complex thought level it’s going to take a longer period of time.”
The program is changing to help students cover that ground. Instead of three levels of classes, they now offer four. Castillo said one focuses on the computer skills students need to take the new tests. The district has also spent about $35,000 on new textbooks, according to Crosby Howell. But printing delays mean the new texts haven’t arrived and instructors haven’t seen a full sample version of the exams.
John Bromma has concerns about what he has seen. He is a professor and counselor who works with students with disabilities.
“The tests, from what we’ve seen — and we still haven’t seen a lot of it – looks to be far more abstract and far more high-level material that a lot of our students may struggle with because depending on their disability, particularly when it’s a cognitive disability, abstract information is the toughest thing to process,” he said.
There were already plenty of students who struggled to pass the old exams. In 2012, 53,011 Californians took one or more of the GED exams, of those 30,201 or 56.9 percent got passing grades on all five parts, according to the most recent report from the GED Testing Service. The passing rates in 2011 and 2010 were slightly better — 60.3 and 61 percent respectively. Bromma and others are concerned raising the bar may cut more people off from opportunities the old certificate did provide.
“If you don’t have a high school diploma or GED, most places won’t hire you," Bromma said. "So — are we going to put that out of reach for people who aren’t destined for a four-year diploma, or what?”
Questions like this one have some states giving up on the GED and going with one of two new companies offering alternative high school equivalency tests. Others are letting test takers chose between the GED and one of the new alternatives. What California will do is still up in the air. So there could be more changes in store for students like Myesha Jones and Bonnie Arias.