By Mai P. Tran, Program Associate
Beginning January 1, 2014, the General Education Development (GED) test is getting a facelift: it will be academically more challenging, more costly, and offered only in a computer-based format. These changes are a part of the GED 21st Century Initiative, an effort to raise the test’s standards to ensure that those who pass the GED are performing at the same level as their high school graduate counterparts and are prepared for college.
The new test will incorporate the Common Core State Standards, which have been widely adopted across the country by K-12 schools and are designed to prepare students for college-level coursework. In addition, the test will now produce two scores—one rating high school academic competency and the other rating readiness for college. Finally, it will only be offered in computer-based format and will cost $120 per test taker—a significant increase for many states from the current average cost of $70 per test.
These changes are stirring debate among advocates, educators, and administrators across the nation. Some leaders believe that the new academic standards will raise the perceived value of passing the GED for those who view the GED as less meaningful than a high school diploma. Proponents of the changes also believe the new scoring system can help universities and colleges in deciding which candidates are prepared for their academic rigor, as well as signal to employers that GED graduates are ready for today’s demanding labor market.
CT Turner, Director of Public Affairs for the GED, says that these changes are necessary to keep students’ knowledge and skillsets up-to-date. “This is about what is the workforce demanding and what does an adult need to really be prepared and have a fighting shot at getting in one of those jobs that’s going to support themselves and their families,” he said in an interview with the American Public Media.
Stephen Steurer, Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association (CEA), agrees with this perspective. “The one thing I like about the new GED is that it forces the issue of the use of technology,” he said. “We keep falling farther and farther behind with technology.”
While the changes may have potential benefits, many advocates have raised concerns about the negative impact they may have on certain groups, including test takers who are currently or formerly incarcerated. On average, individuals involved with the criminal justice system have low levels of education, and those who are currently or were recently incarcerated may have had limited access to computers. Because of these unique challenges, these test takers are expected to have difficulty passing the new test. “A lot of these guys have enough struggles getting through the current GED,” said Dawn Grage, who has been teaching GED classes in Indiana’s prisons for more than 20 years corrections, in an interview with Indiana Public Media. “And if it makes it harder and with computers, the older gentlemen…there are some guys who have never touched a computer.” The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey found that among individuals who would be released from prison within two years, 74 percent had never touched a computer, and only 16 percent reported that they were somewhat computer literate.
Based on current test scores and pass rates among individuals in prisons and jails, a more challenging GED test may impact the pass rate significantly. In 2010, 25 percent of incarcerated test takers who took the GED did not pass, and the median score on the five tested content areas for the test takers who did pass was 500 out of a maximum of 800 points—only 50 points above the minimum to pass. Because so many are currently scoring just above the minimum, it is likely that fewer will pass the new, more rigorous test.
In addition, there is concern that the cost of the test will be a financial burden on those returning home from prison. “It’s going to be prohibitive,” said Connecticut State Representative Toni E. Walker said in an interview with National Public Radio. “People come here with pennies and nickels, bringing us change to pay for the GED…People who have no money will never be able to actually take the GED.” Many who return home from prison struggle financially and live in neighborhoods with limited resources, job opportunities, and social services. With basic living expenses such as rent, food, and clothing competing for priority, the high cost of the GED may turn some away from pursuing it.
There are also concerns about whether jails, which have more limited resources than state or federal prisons, will be able to offer the new GED. The test will require investments in computers, training for teachers, and a new curriculum for GED preparation. “Many jails feel like they are being left behind on this,” said Mr. Steurer of the CEA. “Some [jails] may offer GED instruction, but [test takers] will have to take [the test] once they leave the jails.”
Communities interested in reducing recidivism, however, have compelling reasons to be concerned about the changes to the GED test. Studies show that individuals who take the GED are less likely to return to prison. In New York, for example, the recidivism rate of offenders who obtained the GED while in custody is 32 percent compared to 37 percent for those who did not. Having a GED also increases the likelihood that individuals returning from prison or jail will find employment. A recent study by the University of Missouri’s School of Public Affairs found that, among the individuals who had earned their GED in prison, 59 percent secured a full-time job after release, compared to only 46 percent among those who did not earn their GED.
In response to the concerns about the new GED, some states are looking to alternative high school equivalency tests. New York, Indiana, and Nevada have announced that they will administer the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) exam instead of the 2014 GED. Developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill, TASC will gradually introduce the Common Core State Standards over the next three years. The test will be offered in both computer- and paper-based formats and will cost only $52. Another alternative test that states are considering is the High School Equivalency Test, or HiSET, which was developed by the Educational Testing Service and the University of Iowa. It will cost about $50 and will be available in both computer- and paper-based formats. Currently, six states—Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Missouri, and Iowa—have announced that they will be administering the HiSET instead of the 2014 GED.
Many other states have been getting ready for the 2014 GED by training their instructors on how to prepare students for the Common Core State Standards. In December 2012, the Correctional Education Association (CEA), in partnership with GED, developed a training curriculum for GED instructors, with funding from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). The new curriculum incorporates the Common Core State Standards, which appear in the GED, TASC, and HiSET. In February, CEA held a NIC-sponsored train-the-trainers event in Indianapolis, in which state correctional education trainers from 30 states, 3 trainers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and 2 from the Corrections Corporation of America participated.
Some leaders believe that in order to prepare test takers in corrections institutions for the computer-based GED, they should receive computer skills training. “I don’t think people will have a problem taking the test on a computer if they are properly trained,” said Mr. Steurer of CEA. “It is crazy if we don’t prepare people for the workplace, where almost every workplace requires some computer literacy.”
 Michael Ausen, “GED going digital at nearly double the cost,” USA Today, July 24, 2013, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2013/07/23/ged-price-increase-2014/2525473/.
 Emily Hanford, Stephen Smith, and Laurie Stern, “Second Chance Diploma Examining the GED,” American RadioWorks, September 2013, available at http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/ged/.
 Julie Rawe, “Why Changing the GED to Incorporate Common Core Worries Adult Educators,” Indiana State Impact, March 20, 2013, available at http://indianapublicmedia.org/stateimpact/2013/03/20/why-changing-the-ged-to-incorporate-common-core-worries-adult-educators/.
 1200 inmates across the country were surveyed in the study. Of these, 702 were in the “near release” group.
Andrea Amodeo, Ying Jin, and Joanna Kling, Preparing for Life Beyond Prison Walls; The Literacy of Incarcerated Adults Near Release (Washington: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration, 2009), available at http://wdr.doleta.gov/research/FullText_Documents/Preparing_for_Life_Beyond_Prison_Walls_The_Literacy_of_Incarcerated_Adults_Near_Release.pdf.
 American Council on Education, GED Testing in Correctional Centers.
 Diane Orson, “Educators Worry Revamped GED Will Be Too Pricey,” National Public Radio, November 18, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/11/28/165916695/educators-worry-revamped-ged-will-be-too-pricey.
 Charles E. Kubrin, Gregory D. Squires, and Eric A. Stewart, “Neighborhoods, Race, and Recidivism: The Community-Reoffending Nexus and its Implications for African Americans,” SAGE Race Relations Abstracts 32 (2007): 1, available at https://webfiles.uci.edu/ckubrin/Neighborhoods,%20Race%20and%20Recidivism.pdf?uniq=fn1t83.
 Ryan Hui Kim, Follow-Up Study Offenders Who Earned High-School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS (Albany: State of New York Department of Correctional Services, 2010), available at http://www.doccs.ny.gov/Research/Reports/2010/GED_evaluation.pdf
 Jake Cronin, The Path to Successful Reentry: The Relationship Between Correctional Education, Employment, and Recidivism (Columbia, MO University of Missouri Institute of Public Policy, 2011), available at http://ipp.missouri.edu/files/ipp/attachments/15-2011_the_path_to_successful_reentry.pdf.
 Jordan Moore, “Montana will soon make the switch from GED to HiSET exam,” NBCMontana.com, November 19, 2013, available at http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/montana-will-soon-make-the-switch-from-ged-to-hiset-exam/-/14594602/23061336/-/co6nm3z/-/index.html.
 Stephen J. Steurer, “News & Notes: Executive Director Report” Correctional Education Association, “An International Organization 34 (2013) 3 (Elridge, MD; Correctional Educational Association, 2013), available at www.ceanational.org/PDFs/CEANews&NotesSpringSummer2013Proof3.pdf.