Reading & Literacy

GED Lowers Passing Score, Tens of Thousands More Could Get HS Credentials

By Catherine Gewertz — January 20, 2016 4 min read
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Cross-posted from High School & Beyond.


The GED Testing Service has decided to lower the pass rate for its high school equivalency exam, a move brought on by its recognition that students who passed the latest, tougher version of it were doing better in college than high school graduates.

The move, first disclosed Wednesday by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, will allow states to lower the passing score on the GED from 150 to 145. The GED Testing Service projected that if all states choose to use the new lower passing score, 100,000 people could pass one or more subjects of the test, and 25,000 could be eligible for a GED credential by passing all four sections.

The company issued a recommendation that states grant retroactive passage to those who failed with the previous score of 150, but each state can make its own decision. States are expected to release details on Jan. 26 about how they’ll handle the change.

Current pass rates dropped significantly after Pearson and the American Council on Education, who make the test, released a more difficult version to reflect the Common Core State Standards. Fewer people are taking the GED, too, since the new version made its debut in January 2014. More are taking new, competing equivalency tests, the HiSET and the TASC.

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said the GED is an important pathway to opportunity for young adults, and the new version made accessing those opportunities more difficult. Lowering the passing score “is a move in the right direction,” he said.

States are taking different approaches to the new passing score. GED Testing Service spokesman CT Turner said that some will start using it right away, others won’t use the new score until March, and some might not use it at all. Others will use the lower cut score retroactively, granting passage to those who didn’t reach the previous passing score.

Not all states confer diplomas for GED passage, but those that do could decide to confer diplomas retroactively. Georgia is one such state: It will grant diplomas retroactively to students who failed the GED with a cut score of 150, according to the Journal Constitution.

The decision to lower the passing score came from analyzing longitudinal data, Turner said. Tracking student performance into college, the company noticed that in several states, fewer students who passed the GED needed remedial coursework than those who earned high school diplomas.

In Oregon’s community colleges, for example, far fewer GED-passers needed remediation in math or language arts than those who earned high school diplomas. The GED Testing Service noted a similar pattern in Rhode Island and in North Dakota, he said.

The GED Testing Service aims to set its passing rate to reflect the achievement of the typical high school graduate, and the data showed that a revision was needed, Turner said.

“We wanted to make sure that the cut score is on par with the average graduating high school senior,” Turner said. “That’s what policymakers and the public expect from the GED: that it reflects—but isn’t ahead of—the curve for high school performance.”

He rejected the idea that the company erred when it set the original cut score at 150.

“We did it based on sound research. We had a technical advisory group, we did a norming study. The only difference here is that in the past, we wouldn’t have had this information for years and wouldn’t have been able to make an adjustment so quickly. Now we have the data to take into account, very quickly, the actual performance of adult learners, what they’re doing once they pass, and how they’re performing.”

Said FairTest’s Schaeffer: “If that’s not admitting they set the bar too high, then I don’t know what is.”

The GED exam is unchanged; the only change is that the passing score will be lowered, making it “more inclusive,” Turner said.

Along with the lower passing score, the GED Testing Service is introducing another change, too. Instead of just one cutoff point—passing or not passing—it now has three. A score of 145 will connote high school-level skills. A score of 165 will signify college readiness, and come with a recommendation that people who score at that level skip remedial work or placement tests, and enroll in credit-bearing classes. A score of 175 will connote not just college readiness, but college-level skill, and will come with a recommendation that students receive credit for coursework in the subjects in which they received those scores.

Since the GED covers math, language arts, science, and social studies, scores of 175 in each subject could suggest—at colleges that decide to accept it—that students automatically earn three credits in math, three credits in science, three credits in social studies, and one credit in language arts, Turner said.

Ten percent of those who have taken the GED since January 2014 have scored a 175 or higher in one or more subjects, Turner said, so that means “there could be college credit waiting for them.”

Jeff Carter, the executive director of the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education, predicted that reaction to the GED’s move to lower the passing score will reflect a tension in his field.

“The tricky part for us is that tension,” he said. “None of us want to present unnecessary new barriers to adult students, but at the same time, we all think there need to be high standards. Having healthy debate about that is something we need to continually do.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.