The New GED Opens Doors but Raises Challenges

January 2014 ushered in a new and harder General Education Development test, or GED.  This is the test that adults without a diploma take to show that they possess high-school level skills. Passing the test should mean more now to employers and admissions officers for community colleges and training programs. But the new GED could also trap more adults on the social-economic ladder’s bottom rung if nothing but the test itself changes.

Let’s start by looking under the hood of the new test. Unlike the old one, it’s now aligned to the Common Core State Standards that many states are using to reshape curriculum and reading and math tests.  The new GED, delivered online, lasts for seven very challenging hours.  Test takers answer questions in language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies, and also write two long and two short essays.

Supposedly, the deep thinking, analytical prowess and computer savvy required to pass the new GED equate with readiness for college and careers.  And increased rigor does give adults seeking higher wages or new careers a more potent calling card. But one big rub is the often huge gap between an adult’s skills and those needed to succeed on the GED, much less to step into today’s jobs or post-secondary education. 

An example from where I live and work: Of the more than 60,000 adults in the District of Columbia who lack a high school diploma, many can’t read or do math at the early elementary school level.  They lack the skills to take in information through reading, and few can do much more than basic calculations.  Many can’t write more than simple lists or notes to their kids’ teachers or use a computer, and many struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities.   

Even high scorers on standard adult reading tests may balk at a GED item asking them to “make evidence-based generalizations or hypotheses based on details in text, including … applications of main ideas to new situations,” as the GED Assessment Guide puts it. The task may seem artificial or “test-like” to them, even though this kind of reading is exactly what a mechanic trying to use a manual to fix a hybrid car or a building supervisor trying to install a new digital thermostat must do!  

Apart from the test’s difficulty is a serious shortage of teachers and adult-learning venues. The number of adults with poor literacy skills far outstrips the availability of experienced teachers and places for them to teach. Many preparing for the GED need systematic, intensive and sustained instruction in a setting that supports and acknowledges these learners as adults with complex lives.  In 2013, D.C. adult education programs had only about 8,000 slots, and the picture looks much the same across the country.

The federal government recognizes adult learners’ needs. But PreK–12 education always takes center stage.  Federal and local funding for adult education is usually slim, often less than $1,000 per learner per year for nonprofit programs—maybe one-tenth of what is spent per student per year in many districts.

An alternative to underfunded education and over-subscribed GED-preparation programs exists—adult charter schools.  Washington, D.C., with its large population of low-literacy adults, leads the country with 11 such schools.  Some conveniently have multiple campuses. Some help non-English speakers learn English while they also master the GED’s academic content. Two also educate children from pre-school through the third grade, providing a double benefit:  parents can leave their youngsters in safe hands while they attend classes, and adult learners hoping to someday land jobs in child development centers can work in “labs” where they can practice what they are learning.   

Adult charter schools have the funds needed to provide innovative instruction and the “wrap-around” social support services that many adult learners need to cope. Some also link to local career-training programs and colleges so that passing the GED is not seen as an end in itself.

To make the GED a credential that really opens doors makes excellent sense in a job market with a huge and growing premium on analytical, computer and reading skills. But the endgame of adult education—a better job, a passport to college, the skills to help one’s kids in school—also requires an accommodating learning environment and other practical social supports.

Terry Salinger is an Institute Fellow and a chief scientist for literacy research at AIR.