Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect start time for TASC test administrations in New York state. They were offered beginning in January 2014.
The transition last year to a newer, more rigorous General Educational Development exam was rocky at first for students of Kathryn Stoecker, a GED-prep coordinator in Lansing, Mich.
Despite her efforts to focus less on facts and more on critical thinking, Ms. Stoecker said, just one student in her program passed the test, which was revised to align with new college and career standards.
In fact, it was a bumpy year for GED test-taking all across the country last year, according to experts. In 2013, before the exam changed, there was a surge in test-taking in most states—including Michigan—followed by a big drop-off last year. Although the GED has been revised before, experts say last year was more disruptive than most transition years.
“This is what happens when you change a test,” said Lennox L. McLendon, the executive director of the Washington-based National Council of State Directors of Adult Education. “In the first year of the new test, we’ve cleared the pipeline, and now we have to scurry and get more people to come in. They’ve heard the test is harder, and they don’t want to do it.”
When the nonprofit American Council on Education partnered with the for-profit Pearson Education for the 2014 update, some officials balked at the higher price and the switch to computer-based testing, so they sought alternatives. In response, the Educational Testing Service introduced the High School Equivalency Test, or HiSET, and McGraw-Hill Education CTB came out with the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.
Most states stuck with the GED, but increasingly states are offering students a choice. In late March, Illinois became the latest to add the HiSET and TASC to the GED. The fluid situation confused some students about which test to take, prompted teachers to ramp up instruction to meet the higher standards, and spurred testing companies to try to educate everyone about the changes.
In 2014, the volume of high-school-equivalency testing dropped by about 50 percent, compared with a typical year, according to the state adult education directors’ group. About 223,000 students took the GED last year, with a passing rate of 62.8 percent, down from nearly 76 percent in 2013 and 69 percent in 2012. Another 43,000 took the TASC, with 59 percent passing; 50,000 took the HiSET, with a 62 percent pass rate.
In 32 states and the District of Columbia, the GED is the only high-school-competency test given; eight states offer it alongside others. The HiSET is given in 15 states (exclusively in seven and as a choice in eight others). Three states give only the TASC; another seven offer it as an option.
Randy Trask, the president and chief executive officer of the GED Testing Service, which has offices in Washington and in Bloomington, Minn., said that participation was less than the company had hoped for, but that the transition went well, considering the scope of the change. He acknowledged concerns and delays in publishers getting newly aligned materials to market.
With more professional development for instructors, Mr. Trask said, teachers are beginning to get on board, and pass rates are increasing. “Anytime you impose change, it’s like a mourning process,” he said.
Ellen M. Haley, the president of McGraw-Hill Education CTB, based in Monterey, Calif., said her company has been working to build awareness of TASC and on getting the public to understand that students don’t earn a “GED,” but rather that states confer high-school-equivalency certificates based on one of three tests.
“With so many [requests for proposals] coming up, I think all three tests will become the standard in states quickly,” said Ms. Haley.
New York offers only the TASC, at no charge to students, and tests didn’t start until January 2014. Kevin G. Smith, the deputy commissioner for adult career and continuing education in New York state, said a phase-in period was needed.
“No one thought we could just flip the switch and be all computer-based,” he said.
Many states didn’t switch to the new HiSET until the middle of 2014, hurting last year’s testing volume, said Amy L. Riker, the national executive director of HiSET, which is produced by the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS. She expects more states will expand exam choices for students. “We feel the market is wide open,” she said.
Adapting to Change
The changes are coming as federal appropriations for adult education, now about $564 million a year, have dropped 25 percent in real dollars, says Jeff Carter, the president of the National Coalition for Literacy, a Washington-based organization that represents national and regional groups advancing adult education and family literacy.
“Our system is significantly weaker compared to the last time we went through this kind of a transition,” he said. With such a drop in adult education enrollment and test-taking, Mr. Carter wonders if students will come back. “These are not just numbers, these are real people,” he said. “Who knows how many will give up in frustration?”
In Nevada, which offers all three tests, Brad Deeds, the state high-school-equivalency administrator, said the choice has been good for students, and posters are up at testing centers to explain test differences.
“We had fewer questions than we were anticipating,” Mr. Deeds said.
Ohio is considering offering the HiSET and TASC in addition to the GED, according to Gary W. Cates, a senior vice chancellor for the Ohio board of regents who oversees the state Adult Basic and Literacy Education program. Mr. Cates said he’s hearing complaints from students and instructors that the new GED “overshoots the target” with higher standards when many test-takers just need the credential.
Ms. Stoecker of Michigan believes the more-rigorous version of the GED was needed. “The GED is no longer the end point,” she said. “Some postsecondary education is necessary, and these are the skills needed to be successful in that training.”
Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as GED Revisions Spur Bumpy Year for Equivalency Exams