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It's graduation day at Academy of Hope, an adult education center in Southeast D.C. Thirty-six smiling students in blue caps and gowns are celebrating. For them, the GED certificate is much more than just a piece of paper. It's a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment, and symbolizes success for the future.
Of the approximately 450,000 people who passed the GED test in the U.S. last year, 500 were D.C. residents. But that number is expected to be far smaller next year when the exam undergoes what some adult educators call a "radical overhaul."
"The test is going to be better because we're raising the requirements for individuals," says Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), which oversees the test. She prefers the term "dramatic transformation."
The new GED test will be far more difficult — more emphasis on critical thinking, more questions on science, and more writing. Students also will need to have background knowledge in certain subjects, not just an understanding of a reading passage. In addition, the scoring will change to identify whether the students that pass are just "high school equivalent" or are at a new higher standard of "college and career ready."
Increasing standards for GED test
To help develop the new test, the nonprofit ACE partnered with the for-profit Pearson, an education company. If we don't provide them something of value, we are setting them up for failure," says CT Turner, with the GED Testing Service.
But for Lecester Johnson, who runs Academy of Hope, and for many other adult educators from across the country, the new test is a source of "constant worry."
Johnson says adult learners come into her program at a sixth grade level for reading and third grade for math, so it takes almost two years for her students to prepare to take the current GED test. With the increased difficulty, she expects they will have to tack on another year of learning. She also has to move from a volunteer base of tutors to hiring eight professional teachers, which will double her nonprofit's costs to $2 million.
"With the new GED, the critical thinking skills, the depth of knowledge required, we'll need subject area experts in the classroom," says Johnson. "For us, that's a huge financial burden."
Educators also say they're frustrated because they don't know what the new test will look like. Apart from a few sample questions and some information on what will be measured, they say there are few practical resources available to help. There is currently no diagnostic test, and a practice test is only expected to roll out this summer.
As for accommodating students with learning disabilities, Turner says that information will come "later." He dismisses complaints about the lack of clear information.
"We have provided more information about this test earlier than we have any other GED test in our history," he says.
Raising the cost
Another change to the GED test will be the cost, which will increase significantly next year. The new price will affect students like Sharonda Warr, who is careful about every dollar. She's been a janitor and home caregiver before she became unemployed almost a year ago. "I just turned 37, and it hit me, 'Oh, you gonna retire in the next 20 years and you don't have anything," she says.
The test costs $50 now; next year it will jump to $120. To put this in perspective, that's twice Warr's monthly-subsidized rent. An unemployment check of $670 a month supports her and her four children.
Valarie Ashley with Southeast Ministries, an adult education center in D.C., says it "absolutely frightens her." She says the new price tag will make it prohibitive for her students who are in the same circumstances as Warr. Ashley not only pays for the test when they take it, she also pays for bus tickets so her students can come to class.
"Will I be able to support as many students in the help that they need?" Ashley says.
But CT Turner with the GED Testing Service calls the $120, "rock bottom pricing." He says the increased costs are because currently, states just lease the exam, and are responsible for everything else.
"They have to find someone to score the test, proctor the test, issue the transcript credential, all those things cost something," he says. "What we're doing is we're moving all those systems under one umbrella."
He suggests states ask private companies to pay for GED test vouchers for students who can't afford the fee. But many states that subsidized the test for students in the past now have concerns about subsidizing a for-profit company. Molly Broad with the new GED partnership says she doesn't see what the problem is.
"It's maybe a kind of knee jerk reaction to any organization that isn't public or isn't a non-profit," she says.
Last month New York State announced it would drop the GED test as its high school equivalency exam and instead work with another company to create a cheaper alternative. Several other states are considering doing the same.
Computerizing the GED test
The GED Testing Service is advertising one more change: students will no longer be able to take a pencil and paper test; it will be computerized.
Turner says these "minimal computer skills" are required for most applications and jobs. He also says there are other advantages, such as being able to register anytime online, better test security and an instant report.
"If I didn't pass math right now, I'd know I didn't pass by a lot or a little," he says. "In 2014, I will know geometry is an issue for me, algebra I have covered."
But Valarie Ashley says most of her students don't have even have basic keyboarding skills, and she's struggling to raise money to buy more computers for them to practice on. There's also high-speed Internet access costs and virus protection. She wonders whether she'll be able to maintain her tutoring program next year.
"I'm not trying to be like Chicken Little, but there are so many things that are unknown, unanswered, but they all have a dollar sign attached," she says.
More support and resources needed
Lecester Johnson with Academy of Hope says she's not against raising standards, but there are so many changes with no support or resources to scale up.
"There is not one adult educator that you speak to that says we don't need to do this," says Johnson. "But the system isn't ready for this exam yet."
In contrast, when the K-12 system increased standards, District schools got four years and millions of dollars in federal funds to help prepare for the change.
One D.C. school for adults has closed its English GED program for a year, partly because its leaders want to see what the new test looks like. Others are pushing students to take the GED test before the changes in 2014.
Many adult educators say the GED test is changing so fast with so little information and because the students who will be affected are already so beaten down, they're not likely to advocate for themselves. Would this be happening, they ask, if we were talking about the SATs?
Slideshow: Academy of Hope 2013 Graduation
One in five adults in the District lacks a high school diploma, and one in three adults cannot read a newspaper, map or street signs. Some of these adults are working to improve their situation through classes at the Academy of Hope in Washington, D.C. View the slideshow to hear some of their stories and get a look at this year's graduating class.
Photos and slideshow produced by Kelly Ramundo
[Music: "Don't Look Back in Anger [Instrumental in the Style of Oasis]" by Easy Karaoke Players from Easy Instrumental Hits, Vol. 102]