Making sense of the 2014 GED changes

According to the GED Testing Service (GEDTS), there are 40 million people without a high school credential in the United States, and every year 1.3 million more students drop out before graduating. Historically, many of these people have taken the GED tests to earn a high school equivalency credential. To prepare test-takers for the current and future job market, the American Council on Education, owner of the GED, will be releasing a new battery of tests in January 2014. But for the first time, the GED isn’t the only exam available to earn a high school equivalency credential. In this first in a series of high school equivalency hot topics, you’ll find out everything you need to know about the GED changes — including the pros and cons of each contender for delivering the tests in 2014 and what the changes will mean for you and your students.

As a GED instructor for the past six years at The Literacy Center in Attleboro, as well as Bristol and Roxbury Community Colleges, and a contributing author to Barron’s Pre-GED textbook, I’ve studied many resources to help students prepare for the test. Information on new test content has been released gradually, and the introduction of two competitors, CTB/McGraw-Hill’s test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) and Educational Testing Services’ High School Equivalency Test (HiSET), has increased the challenge of staying on top of the possibilities. 

Now we’re just four months away from the expiration of the current test, and test takers only have until the end of 2013 to finish the existing GED testing process.  Any student who has not successfully completed all five tests may need to start from scratch, which is discouraging and costly.

History of the GED

Since 1942, the American Council on Education’s GED has been the only game in town to earn a high school equivalency credential.  Originally designed to help returning World War II veterans reintegrate and get jobs in civilian life, the GED has periodically changed (in 1978, 1988 and 2002) to keep pace with standards of high school education. The 2014 change is designed to meet the Common Core State Standards to better prepare candidates for college and career readiness.

As part of the current change, the American Council on Education joined forces in 2011 with Pearson VUE, the leading provider of global computer-based testing solutions, to create the for-profit GED Testing Service (GEDTS), and they began working on creating a new GED based on the new standards for college and career readiness.

The 2014 GED

The 2014 GED will only be delivered via computer, and the tests have been redesigned to cover four content areas:  reasoning through language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies.  Test takers will need to exhibit stronger analytic, critical thinking and writing skills, and will also require a basic comfort level with computer keyboarding. The 2014 GED tests are nationally normed using high school seniors; adult learners do not appear to be part of the process. Additionally, sites for administering the 2014 GED must meet Pearson technical requirements. Although 37 states offer the current GED test on computer, as of the date of this blog post none of the 33 Massachusetts tests centers are doing so. While this may not be an indication of the state’s readiness for delivering the 2014 GED via computer, it does cause me to question whether test sites can be ready in time. Finally, the cost for the full set of GED tests will be $120, nearly double the cost of the current test with an additional fee for each test a student needs to retake (not an unusual occurrence particularly in math and writing).

Competitors enter the market

So, why are alternative tests being developed? While the GEDTS is currently responsible for developing the tests, each individual state confers the high school equivalency certificate. As a result, each state has the right to choose which test it will use to determine competency. While the 2014 GED changes promise to better prepare students for college and careers, several states are looking for more accessible, affordable alternatives. Two such alternatives have surfaced, namely the TASC and HiSET.  

Alternative 1: CTB/McGraw-Hill’s test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) 

The TASC assess five subject areas including reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies (in line with the current GED content areas). CTB/McGraw-Hill plans a three year transition from Foundational Common Core State Standards in 2014 to full Common Core State Standards in 2016 in order to support adult learners and education centers as they update their current preparation processes. CTB/McGraw-Hill released sample questions for all subject areas at the end of July to familiarize test takers with the kinds of items they will be asked.  

While the GED exclusively norms tests using graduating seniors, TASC tests are nationally normed on both graduating high school seniors and diverse samples of equivalency-test-ready adult learners. TASC will be available in an online format as well as paper-and-pencil, providing flexibility for test takers and giving states time to phase in computer based testing.  This also means states can follow the secure processes for administering the exam that are already in place. The cost for the full range of TASC tests will be $52 and will include two retests.  Finally, states will have the option of giving test takers credit for previously passed GED tests, as its structure aligns more closely with the current GED.  In March of 2013, New York became the first state to adopt the TASC as the state’s official high school equivalency assessment.

Alternative 2: Educational Testing Services’ High School Equivalency Test (HiSET)

The HiSET tests are a partnership of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Iowa Testing Program (ITP).  Similar to TASC, the HiSET tests are in line with the current GED’s five core subject areas while being delivered in both paper based and computer based formats. The primary difference is the HiSET approach to move to Common Core State Standards in two phases, the first of which will be ready this January.

This first phase will be compatible with current instructional materials used for high school equivalency assessment. They will measure the more rigorous college and career readiness standards that most states will use beginning in 2014–2015, such as the Common Core State Standards in reading, writing, and mathematics as well as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Phase 2 HiSET will align even more fully with the CCSS and NGSS once instructional programs for those standards are developed and instructional providers learn how to teach to the new standards. ETS and ITP will work with the states in designing the Phase 2 assessments. At the time of this post, no sample HiSET questions were available. The HiSET program also supports combining pre-2014 GED scores with HiSET scores, but that decision is left up to the individual states. The cost of the HiSET tests are reported to be $50 for the entire series, which will include two retests in a calendar year.

Which test is the best choice for Massachusetts test takers? 

I have personally seen some GED graduates struggle in college level classes, and a better foundation would certainly help them to succeed. However, I’m concerned about the adult factory worker who lost his job and now needs a GED to enter a vocational retraining program. Many of our adult learners have families to feed and mortgages to pay. Some of them ended their formal education in elementary school. Is it realistic to expect them to rise to the level of the new GED before their unemployment runs out?

As an instructor to both out-of-school youth and adult native and non-native speaking learners, I would pick the TASC tests as the most affordable and accessible assessment for high school equivalency. Better preparing students for a high-tech workforce is undoubtedly a noble cause, but the needs of students should not fall second to a for-profit business’s bottom line.  A more gradual move toward computer-based testing and CCSS alignment will give teachers the time they need to more fully understand the college and career readiness standards, so they can effectively prepare students to cross the high school equivalency finish line.  Beyond that, the cost for the new GED is more economically prohibitive than ever before, and pales in comparison to its new alternatives at more than double the price before factoring in retakes.