published Sunday, October 27th, 2013

New GED test could improve Tennessee's workforce

After a Tuesday GED tutoring session at his home in Alton Park, Skip Eberhardt talks with Keyshundra Vinson, left, and Adarius Garth, right.
After a Tuesday GED tutoring session at his home in Alton Park, Skip Eberhardt talks with Keyshundra Vinson, left, and Adarius Garth, right.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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Did you ever take the GED test?

Its price has nearly doubled, and test-takers who haven't finished will have to start all over again. The new GED exam doesn't look good on paper -- and it's not even a paper test anymore.

But it could mean a tremendous, 20 percent growth in Tennessee's workforce as soon as next year.

Roughly 67 percent of Tennesseans who previously took the classic, paper-format GED passed it, according to GED Testing Service, the for-profit company that now owns the GED name. Students in the state who have taken the current GED test on computer have an 87 percent pass rate," according to the test's administrators. With two free retakes available to students next year, more students will be able to be prepared for 2014's limited job market.

"We need to make sure we're measuring the skills students need in today's economy if these students want a fighting chance," said Armando Diaz, the GED's public affairs specialist.

So the GED decided to raise the bar.

The GED has long been considered a second chance for high-school dropouts to earn an "equivalent" diploma, but January's incoming GED program expects its successors to be prepared for the economy's "middle-skill" jobs and college enrollment. The former test, last updated in 1998, readied its clients for the "low-skill" workforce, such as cashier and customer service positions that were in high demand at the time.

But Diaz said there are 4 million more low-skill employees than open positions in the United States right now.

"A high school diploma or [old] GED is simply not enough to succeed today," Diaz said. "The GED is not an end-point, and it's a stigma we want to get rid of."

Instead, the future lies in GED takers who want some post-high school education: a nation of pharmacy technicians and mechanics-to-be. And if Tennessee can sustain an 87 percent GED pass rate, it could do wonders toward sending the 494,000 more people toward postsecondary education the state needs to fulfill its "Drive to 55" by 2025.

"The majority of people who come in to train for the test want two things: They want a job, but most also say they plan to get some postsecondary education," said Suzanne Elston, director of Chattanooga State Community College's adult education program.

The new GED test hopes to bridge the gap to the middle-skill job market by aligning to the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education, as approved by the U.S. Department of Education in April.

The new benchmarks will raise standards for English, math and arts testing, as well as implement new guidelines for a "complete education" like integrating into the exam basic computer skills and the ability to build arguments, which were not in the current GED.

But not every one of Chattanooga State's 700 registered adult learners is ready for this steep jump up to College and Career Readiness standards, which still haven't been accepted by all area high schools, Elston said.

Instead, many adults are preparing for the HiSet, a GED competitor created by Educational Testing Services, the same folks who pioneered the SAT and GRE. The HiSet rival plans to offer optional paper-based testing and an easier CCR learning curve.

"That's going to be a huge factor for a lot of students, that HiSet is offering a transition into the Common Core," Elston said. It's not going to be a full-blown change.

The heightened prices are also an issue. The new GED will cost $120, compared to the current $65. The HiSet rival is $75.

Elston said students who can't swing the whole $120 at once can break the new GED up into sections -- math, English, science and social studies -- and take one $30 exam at a time.

Elston said Chattanooga State, the city's only testing site, will have enough donated funding to purchase test codes from the companies in order to make the unaffordable a reality.

The new GED's real selling point, compared to the HiSet, is its ability to divide and conquer.

GED Testing Service is integrating textbooks alongside the new GED test. If test-takers fail, the digital format will immediately present clients with their incorrect answers, as well as where they can find help down to a specific page and paragraph.

Customers will get two free retakes, and a whopping 88 percent of national testers were able to pass the GED's current computerized model with one.

The HiSet offering, which has yet to be test-driven by the adult education community, cannot predict any success numbers.

Regardless of the testing prototypes due out in less than three months, any person who hasn't finished the current GED will lose all his or her progress and be forced to start over.

The ReStart adult education program in Chattanooga has been working with fervor to process its last 20 students in hopes they can pass the current GED before Jan. 4.

"We've had students who have been working to pass for two or three years," said Ruby Porter, director of ReStart. "We really won't be focusing on the new GED probably until January. We need to get these students and their goals taken care of first."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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