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New GED will have higher price, new curriculum

Fri., Aug. 9, 2013

Susan Wilson teaches a pre-GED Math Problem Solving Skills class at the Adult Education Center in July. There are major changes coming to the GED, including a price hike, computer-based exams and a change in curriculum. (Colin Mulvany)
Susan Wilson teaches a pre-GED Math Problem Solving Skills class at the Adult Education Center in July. There are major changes coming to the GED, including a price hike, computer-based exams and a change in curriculum. (Colin Mulvany)

Spokane educators knew changes to the General Education Development test were coming. After all, testers revamp the high school equivalency exam every decade.

Also, the two partners offering the test, Pearson and the American Council on Education, announced in 2011 that they wanted to modernize it to align more closely with career and college readiness standards.

But that doesn’t make instructors any less worried about what the changes mean for their adult students.

Beginning Jan. 1, GED Testing Service will implement a new computer-based exam with a fresh curriculum and a higher price tag.

“The new test is a lot different and is requiring a totally different skill set,” said Kyla Bates, the chief GED examiner for Community Colleges of Spokane.

One of the most immediate concerns is people who’ve been stalling in finishing their GED, which can be completed in sections.

It’s not unusual for GED test takers to freeze at the math portion of the exam, Bates said. Math anxiety, in fact, prompts many test-takers to complete all the other sections of the exam, then wait months to finish math.

But people who haven’t finished the test need to do so before the curriculum changes, because at that point, all previous exam scores are thrown out, Bates said.

GED testers are encouraging students to finish the exams soon or wait until next year, Bates said.

“If you’ve still got some tests out there, come in and take it now,” she said.

The new exam will be reduced from five tests to four: math, science, social studies and language arts. Short essay and writing-based questions will be sprinkled throughout the test, requiring students to prove a higher level of thinking and connecting ideas, Bates said.

“A lot of it is reasoning and problem-solving in the new tests,” Bates said. “It’s being able to put two ideas together and write something succinct.”

GED spokesman Armando Diaz said the new test is designed to determine students’ readiness for college and higher-level jobs.

Bates said, however, that if students are already struggling with critical thinking in high school, it’s likely many won’t be able to perform at the level needed to pass the GED.

And teachers say they don’t yet know how to teach to the new test.

GED instructor Lisa Williams at CCS said there’s no way to know what to expect. GED Testing Services released practice questions, but Williams hasn’t seen a practice test.

“We feel like we’re in a holding pattern,” she said.

One thing that’s certain: The GED will be exclusively a computer-based test next year.

Instructors and administrators said they’re concerned their students won’t have the computer skills necessary to take the test, but Bates said CCS is already allowing students to take the test online to prepare them for what’s coming.

GED Testing Services has heard complaints that the computer exam will prevent students from taking it, but Diaz said the average test-taker is 26 and needs those skills to compete in the workforce.

GED Testing Services says computerized tests already being offered have a 93 percent pass rate, while paper tests have an 82 percent pass rate.

Costs for the new GED will increase in Washington, though only slightly. Still, it’s enough to pose an obstacle to some low-income adults, instructors say.

It’s actually cheaper to administer the test via computer, Diaz said, but state GED Administrator Lou Sager said buying computers and administering the online-based test has driven up costs. This year, Washington doubled its price for the GED from $75 to $150 for the five exams in preparation for the coming changes.

Next year, the price will remain the same, but for four tests – a $7.50 increase per exam.

An extra $7.50 for each test may not seem like much, but it’s “not pocket change,” Bates said, especially when about half of Spokane’s GED test takers depend on financial assistance.

That was the case for Bethany Helgeson, 32, who recently completed her GED.

Helgeson was home-schooled and never received her high school diploma.

She wanted to go to college, but didn’t need to; her husband made enough money as a mechanical engineer to support her and their two children.

“It wasn’t enough of a priority to offset the cost,” she said.

But when her husband fell ill and had to stop working five years ago, her priorities changed. The family depends on welfare, but Helgeson saved money to take the GED so she could start working. Helgeson plans to go to Spokane Community College in the fall or spring.

Helgeson said that although she found a way to make it work, she struggled to pay for her GED.

And Bates thinks she wouldn’t be the only one. The price hike runs the risk of denying basic education to struggling students, she said.

“It scares the heck out of me to have a population of people who are being shut out for a variety of reasons, from being able to get good-paying jobs,” Bates said.

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