Published March 9th, 2015 at 3:46 PM
One of Linda Kozacek’s proudest accomplishments is helping a once-homeless single mother named Ada reach her full potential.
After Ada passed the General Educational Development (GED) test to earn her high school diploma, Kozacek helped her find grants for community college. Now, while working full time and raising her children, Ada is exploring MBA programs.
In her role as an adult education coach at Johnson County Community College, Kozacek helps students identify goals and then nudges them through the process.
“Unlike other students that are coming out of high schools in Johnson County, these students don’t have anybody that’s just even listening to them,” Kozacek said.
Kozacek has a lot of stories of adult learners overcoming obstacles to pass the GED test. It’s a first step for many immigrants and those who didn’t finish high school to get a good job.
But a year after major changes to the high school equivalency test, she’s worried that there are fewer success stories.
The number of people who passed the GED exam in Kansas last year is the lowest it’s been in decades. And adult education centers, which for years have helped ensure that students are ready for the test, have been cut out of the process.
The new version of the GED was rolled out at the beginning of 2014. It costs students more than its predecessor, is aligned with the K–12 Common Core education standards and can only be taken on a computer at a Pearson testing center.
Critics say that the new test unfairly impacts thousands of economically disadvantaged adults trying to get their high school diploma.
The changes resulted from a new partnership between the private company Pearson and the nonprofit American Council on Education, which had been the sole administrator of the GED in the U.S. since its creation in 1942. In 2011, the council and Pearson formed GED Testing Service LLC to overhaul the GED.
Many adult educators feel the test needed to be updated to fit the demands of higher education and the workforce. But they also question how students are adjusting given that many face major economic and language barriers.
Amid concerns, other testing companies created alternatives to the GED test and began offering them to states, which are each responsible for administering their own high school equivalency standards.
As KCPT reported a year ago, Kansas adopted the new GED test and Missouri chose the HiSET test, which is administered by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service.
Thirty-four states, including Kansas, decided to offer only the new GED test.
In state after state, fewer people are taking the tests, and those who do are failing at much higher rates. In Rhode Island and Wisconsin, the number of people who passed the test dropped more than 90 percent.
In Kansas, only 807 people passed the GED in 2014, compared to 3,617 in 2013 and 2,806 in 2012.
Michele Buescher is a lead instructor for Adult Basic Education at JCCC. She said that, while she can help students adjust to different curriculum and computer-based test taking, the cost of the new test has had an impact.
The total cost of the test in Kansas has increased from $85 to $132. But test takers can opt to take and pay for each of the test’s four sections separately, and section retakes cost $10.
“I hear more students that have to spread it out,” Buescher said. “They may be ready, but they can’t take them all now. They may be able to take one and then have to wait for another paycheck or two.”
According to GED Testing Service and the State of Kansas, the pass rate in the state is around 66 percent.
Susan Fish is the director of adult education for the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s adult learning centers where students prepare for the GED.
Fish acknowledges that, while she and others in adult education were concerned about how a private entity would impact the test, she thinks the jury is still out.
“This is a change that will take time to adjust,” Fish said. “I don’t think that fewer test takers or test passers is a way to judge the test itself.”
But for critics of the new GED, the number of people passing the test has everything to do with the test’s legitimacy and fairness.
David Spring is an educational researcher with a specialty in math. He runs the website restoregedfairness.org.
Spring began checking into the new test because his wife is an adult educator. She was concerned when students were struggling to pass the test. So Spring began looking at the math section, which he says contains problems that most high school students could not answer.
Spring believes that Pearson and GED Testing Service not only created an unfairly difficult test, but also that it stands to profit from people retaking the test and buying its test prep materials.
So last March, Spring asked Pearson for the norming study of the test, which would show which percentage of actual high school graduates could pass the test.
Last January, he sent another email request.
“They replied saying that they intend to publish their norming study sometime during 2015,” Spring said. “My feeling is that, without a norming study, no state should be using any test without scientific data (that is) published and public … Pearson has basically stonewalled the public by not publishing the norming study.”
C.T. Turner, who is the senior director, state accounts and government relations, at GED Testing Service said in an email that the GED Testing Service will publish its norming study this month.
He emphasized that changes to the GED will help adults succeed in college and a job market needing more highly skilled workers.
Turner said that the new test “aims to help adults achieve their dreams.”
“Too many educators are content for their adults to work in fast food, but this isn’t what adult learners want — they’ve told us so,” Turner said. “So repeating a test that is aligned with or easier than the old GED test will result in the same results.”
Turner also criticized the HiSET test as being too easy.
“People are desperate to pass the test,” Spring said of the GED. “Particularly for low-income young adults, this is their last chance for a successful life.”
Spring is based in Washington state and has been lobbying for the state to switch from the GED to the HiSET test, which he believes is a fairer exam.
Missouri is one of 14 states that uses the HiSET as its high school equivalency exam.
“A lot of states have been very happy with the amount of connection that we have with them and how we approach this as a partnership,” said Jason Carter, HiSET’s National Director.
In Missouri, the change to the HiSET seems to have been an easier one, although there was a drop in the number people earning their high school equivalency.
According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees high school equivalency in the state, 8,513 Missourians passed the HiSET in 2014, compared to 11,755 GED passers in 2013 and 9,411 in 2012.
Bonnie Endicott is the coordinator for adult education and literacy at North Kansas City schools and said that the transition to the HiSET has been smoother than she thought it would be. The HiSET test has five sections, which cost $95 total. While HiSET allows two individual section retakes for free, test centers in Missouri charge $7 for retakes.
“I had been very concerned about making such a monumental change because the GED had been around forever, and we felt like we really knew that test,” Endicott said. “But we started sending students right away to test, and they were passing.”
Endicott believes the student pass rate has remained high in Missouri, in part, because, unlike the GED, the HiSET test is gradually transitioning to the Common Core.
The K-12 Common Core standards for reading and math emphasize problem solving and critical thinking skills.
Because most adults haven’t been exposed Common Core, JCCC Adult Education Program coordinator Liz Lanphear said more people need test preparation.
But, for most of 2014, enrollment in GED prep classes at JCCC was down.
“I had 10 students last spring, and I’ve had eight this fall,” said Janet Daley, who has been teaching GED classes for 18 years and now teaches at JCCC’s West Park Center in Overland Park. “So 18 students have passed the GED (in 2014), and we would typically have 40 to 50.”
Before the changes to the GED, adult learning programs were an essential stop on the way to taking the GED test in Kansas.
Kansans were required to pass an official practice test at a local adult education center before taking the GED exam.
Now, Kansans can take the GED test any time at a Pearson testing center, which adds convenience. But it also means adult education centers are out of the loop.
Not only can test takers bypass instruction that, in the past, helped ensure success, but adult education programs can no longer access student test scores.
“They have a goldmine of data, and (adult education programs) can’t get to it,” said Janice Blansit, who is the Johnson County Adult Education program director at JCCC. “We can’t even get information on who’s tested.”
Blansit said that GED Testing Service claims it is barred from releasing the information by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). It recently added a registration option that allows students to have their scores sent to their adult education center.
“This is a start, but there is no way to identify other students who do not pass the test who could be helped by adult education programs in their areas, and no opportunity to invite those who pass to participate in local graduation ceremonies,” Blansit said.
The state’s contract with GED Testing Service only permits “state office staff” to access test-taker data.
In spite of a lack of information about who has taken the test and when, adult education programs are required to track for two years the progress of those that pass the GED.
“So, for me, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack in terms of who I’m supposed to follow up with,” Kozacek said.
Prior to the changes, Kozacek said that she would typically be working with 18 to 20 students each semester to identify post-secondary or work goals and connect them with opportunities like scholarships. This semester, Kozacek is working with just four students.
“(The transition coaches’) job is to help students dream bigger,” Blansit said.
“In the past, we knew who was testing, and we could assure that those students received the support they deserve,” Blansit added later in an email. “But now that GED Testing Services and their for-profit parent hold the data, our access is blocked.”
Kansas plans to stick with the new GED until they know that colleges and employers will honor other high school equivalency tests.
In the meantime, Kozacek said she will try to find GED students, so that she can connect them to colleges and employers and give them every chance of success.
Update: A previous version of this story stated that in Rhode Island and Wisconsin, just 10 percent of test takers passed the GED. This was incorrect. In fact, the number of people that passed the test in those states fell by 90 percent between 2013 and 2014. The story has been updated to reflect the change.
A previous version of this story stated that the first two retakes of individual sections of the HiSET in Missouri were free. This was incorrect. In fact, while HiSET provides two free retakes, Missouri test centers charge a $7 retake fee. The story has been updated to reflect the change.