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Wis. Lawmakers Cry Foul As Officials Seek To Lower G.E.D. Score

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Setting a standard too high may be a mistake, but trying to bring it back down can really get you in trouble, Wisconsin education officials have learned.

Several state legislators have risen up in opposition to Superintendent John T. Benson's effort to lower the state's passing score on a high-school equivalency test. Mr. Benson has maintained that he is simply correcting a technical error in seeking to lower the threshold score, which he says had been set too high after 1987.

Lowering the passing score is "the just and equitable thing to do," Mr. Benson said last month in a prepared statement in which he also pledged to award General Educational Development diplomas to those who had failed the test as a result of the error.

Some state legislators, however, have accused the superintendent of trying to "dumb down" the G.E.D. test and have argued that the state's real problem is its failure to prepare its students.

"We ought to, in my opinion, simply set our Wisconsin standard high and then help adults achieve the standard," said Timothy L. Weeden, a Republican state senator who co-chairs the legislature's joint committee for reviewing administrative rules.

The lawmakers also assert that Mr. Benson overstepped his authority last month in trying to lower the passing score without legislative approval. Mr. Benson disputes that, but is preparing a proposal for legislative review.

The General Educational Development Testing Service, a division of the nonprofit American Council on Education, has set the national minimum passing score on the G.E.D. at 225 out of 400. That threshold is designed to insure that only two-thirds of the nation's graduating seniors would pass the test, and thus relieve G.E.D. recipients of some of the stigma associated with their failure to complete high school.

A Norming Question

The organization allows states to set their own minimums, but recommends that they conduct norming studies to find the score only two-thirds of seniors would obtain.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction conducted a norming study in 1987 that suggested a minimum score of 250. But the $12,000 study did not count the scores of Milwaukee students, traditionally among the state's lowest.

In 1987, the state's last year using a minimum passing score of 225, a total of 8,644 Wisconsin residents received G.E.D. credentials. In 1988, just 2,741 earned them.

"It really undermined the Wisconsin G.E.D. program," said Jean H. Lowe, director of the G.E.D. Testing Service, which has supported Mr. Benson's proposal to set the minimum at 230.

Advocates for minorities and the poor also were angered by the impact of the new standard.

"It has been quite a hardship," said Jan M. Nicolaisen, a former head of the governmental-relations committee of the Wisconsin Association for Adult and Continuing Education, who said many people who failed to obtain a G.E.D. were denied jobs, wage increases, and access to student loans.

Many who favor lowering the minimum say the 250 cutoff gives an unfair advantage to people who obtained G.E.D. credentials in other states. Employers tend to look only at the G.E.D. credential, not at the score behind it, they contend.

But advocates of the higher minimum have argued that Wisconsin G.E.D. holders have a competitive edge.

"We have to stop making it easier for people when 'easier' does not offer them a secure future," said Margaret A. Farrow, a Republican state senator, contending that employers have been "recognizing the value and quality of a Wisconsin G.E.D."

Senator Weeden noted that the number of Wisconsin residents meeting the higher threshold has climbed steadily since 1988, and more than 4,700 earned G.E.D. credentials last year.

"Obviously," he said, "the message is getting out there that folks are going to have to put in some time studying for this test."

Supporters of the higher standard have asserted that the state should focus its efforts on boosting student performance. Accordingly, Scott McCallum, the state's lieutenant governor, has introduced legislation calling for rigorous, achievement-based graduation standards for all students.

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