Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

New GED Tests Stir Concerns, Draw Competitors

By Caralee J. Adams — May 31, 2013 10 min read
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For many dropouts, especially those who are too old to return to the public K-12 system, the GED assessment has long been the main route to the high school credential that eluded them.

But, come January, getting a General Educational Development credential won’t be the same.

Gone will be the paper-and-pencil tests. Students instead will take the exams on a computer and know the same day if they passed. Content will be more rigorous to align with new common academic standards for most high schools, and test-takers will receive a separate college- and career-readiness score.

Along with the big changes, comes a bigger price tag: $120. That’s about double what it was before the American Council on Education partnered with the for-profit publisher Pearson to form the new GED Testing Service.

Just how much students pay—and whether they can take the GED tests at all—will depend on where they live.

Concerns over cost and access to the revised exams have prompted CTB/McGraw-Hill and the Educational Testing Service to enter the market at the same time with their own high school equivalency tests, leading some states to drop the GED exams altogether or offer students a choice. Other states are expanding alternative paths to getting a diploma with competency-based programs.

All those changes exacerbate students’ confusion over a patchwork of policies and options for students without a high school diploma. The situation varies across the country because adult education services, which also cover teenage dropouts young enough to be in school, are operated and financed differently in each state.

States set their own fees for testing. Some subsidize the cost of the tests, while others charge an administrative fee or have students foot the bill. The testing situation will likely become more fluid as administrators sort through the details and consider how to prepare students for the change.

One outcome is sure: The uncertainty is expected to translate into a surge of GED test-taking this year, before the landscape changes significantly in 2014.

Why New Assessments?

“It was definitely time for [the GED assessment] to be revamped. It would lose its relevance and authority if it wasn’t,” says Barry E. Shaffer, an adult education consultant and a retired director of adult education in Faribault, Minn.

A driving force behind the new assessment has been a need to prepare students better for life beyond high school and the demands of today’s workforce. Research by the American Council on Education, which has run the GED program for about 70 years, found that although 65 percent of GED test-takers plan to go on to some form of postsecondary education, only 35 percent enroll within seven years, and just 12 percent earn any higher education credential.

Since 1942, the GED tests have been updated three other times—in 1978, 1988, and 2002.

“The GED test has always been a reflection of what is happening in high schools,” says Randy Trask, the president of the GED Testing Service, which has offices in Washington and Bloomington, Minn. “Our high schools are all going through a radical transformation to college- and career-readiness standards,” he says. The new GED exams will show if students have the skills to get through the first year of college without taking a remedial course.

Nationally, one in seven high school credentials are GED certificates. In 2011, about 723,000 students (average age 26) took the tests, a number that has remained relatively flat for the last decade.

GED: What's New


All tests will be administered exclusively on computers.


Instead of five content areas, there will be a total of four sections: mathematics, social studies, science, and language arts. (Reading and writing have been merged into language arts.)

Content will be more academically rigorous, with material aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Students, for example, will be expected to analyze literature and form an argument for essay questions in the language arts section. Problem-solving questions in math will be modeled after real-world work experiences.


Students will be given a maximum of 7¼ hours, but many students are expected to finish the exam in closer to 5½ hours.


The new tests will be on an entirely new scale and will have a passing score of 150 on each subject-matter section. Test-takers will need a total score of 600 across the four-subject battery to receive the GED test credential. States may set a higher score, as they are the entities awarding the high school diploma.

Students will know instantly how they did on most items, but final results likely will come within two to three hours of testing (because of the time needed to score the new short-answer questions). Detailed reports will have subscores pinpointing students’ problem areas.


Scores on a separate set of indicators will address skills and competencies associated with college and career readiness.

SOURCE: General Educational Development Testing Service

Although the growing popularity of credit recovery and new alternative competency-based credential systems may account for some of that lack of growth, most experts and GED proponents acknowledge there will always be a need for the GED exams or some similar high school equivalency assessment.

Nearly 16 percent of American adults do not have a high school diploma, according to federal education officials. More jobs are requiring higher levels of education, and GED Testing Service officials say they are only scratching the surface of potential test-takers.

The new GED assessment will cover four subject areas: literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies. Its more-rigorous content will be aligned with the new Common Core State Standards, which ask students to do more analysis and deeper-level thinking.

When details emerged last fall about the revised GED tests, though, some adult education leaders worried about states’ ability to cover the cost and acquire the new technology, and whether students could adapt to the computer model and tougher content.

“Our initial reaction was ‘a little too far, too fast, folks,’ ” says Kevin G. Smith, the deputy commissioner for adult career and continuing education in New York state. “It’s not a simple matter of aligning the test and putting out a new test instrument that is computer-based.”

Students and instructors need time to gear up, he says: “It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without cost.”

New York and other states began to look for alternatives through a working group of 41 members from the National Council of State Adult Education Directors, a Washington-based professional association.

CTB/McGraw-Hill, the New York City-based educational publisher, was the first to jump into the market, developing its own Test Assessing Secondary Completion, which New York has committed to using. Meanwhile, the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service and Iowa Testing Programs have joined forces to launch the High School Equivalency Test, or HiSET. Montana and New Hampshire have adopted the ETS version of the test, and other states, such as Tennessee, are considering offering both the HiSET and the GED.

Converting to a new system at a time when education dollars are tight is a challenge for many. “Nationally, it’s just a mess,” says Shaffer, the Minnesota consultant. “But it can be resolved at the state level with a good bit of collaboration, discussion, [and] policymaking.”

Hard to Compare

To use other test vendors, some states, such as Washington and Tennessee, are in the midst of rewriting laws to wipe out references to the brand GED. But the GED Testing Service reports that at least 20 states have publicly indicated they will continue to use its new tests.

“I think this is all smoke now,” says Trask of the GED Testing Service. “No one has anything to compare, only promises of what they are going to have.”

The GED Testing Service maintains that its new assessment is the only one that will align completely with the common core, and Trask says it’s “almost offensive” to assume students can’t adapt to computers or acknowledge that today’s job market requires those higher-level skills.

Last year, the GED Testing Service piloted the computer testing with 40,000 students of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and computer-skill levels. Results were encouraging. According to the testing company, the passing rate on computers was 88 percent, compared with 71 percent for the paper test. The exam went more quickly, too, with students finishing in 5½ hours versus 8. Also, adults who took the test via computer were 59 percent more likely to retake a failed test instead of giving up and dropping out of the testing program.

Under the organization’s new model, $40 of the $120 fee charged to students will be returned to the testing centers to cover the cost of giving the exams. That makes its fee competitive with the $50 HiSET or the $54 Test Assessing Secondary Completion, Trask says.

Other Players

Already a developer of adult basic education tests, CTB/McGraw-Hill was well positioned to provide an alternative to the GED tests, says Richard Patz, the vice president of research and engineering for the company. “We know how upset [state adult education directors] were, frankly, about the changes that were happening to the GED,” he says. “It looked like a good opportunity to serve that community better.”

In its three-year contract with New York state, CTB/McGraw-Hill will charge the state an average of $54 per year, per person, for its test, which will be available both on paper and computer and have a separate cutoff score to indicate a student’s readiness for postsecondary credentials. Company officials say in the first year, the tests will be aligned to the foundational concepts of the common-core standards and in three years will be more deeply aligned to the standards.

The ETS can offer its HiSET at $50 a pop on paper or computer because the organization is a nonprofit, says Amy L. Riker, the director of that testing program. The price does not cover test-center fees, which states may choose to add. The HiSET will be aligned with the common core in math and English/language arts. By 2016, it will be aligned with all content areas, she says.

“We understand this market. This is not a testing market that is extremely wealthy,” says Riker. “We want to make sure we can offer a test price that will never create a barrier to access.”

Impact on States

Just how students are assessed and what they will pay varies widely. About 25 states charge students less than the new $120 GED fee and absorb the difference. At least two states—Arkansas and New York—provide free testing to all students.

Most states say some change will be required to keep the exams affordable, according to a survey of state directors of adult education conducted by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education and the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP.

“The landscape is pretty dire” when it comes to funding for adult education, says Marcie Foster, a policy analyst with CLASP, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on policy issues for low-income people.

It’s good for states to have alternatives, says Foster. “What’s happening is supposed to happen—market forces. It’s reasonable and appropriate to have competitors in the field,” she says.

Georgia had no problems as the first state to pilot the computer-based GED exam, says Beverly Smith, the assistant commissioner in the state’s office of adult education. “Students love it, and they do better,” she says.

What students didn’t like was the price tag, which went from $95 to $160 in Georgia, spurring protests. “At first, it was like, ‘This is the end of the world,’ ” Smith says. “But that has died down.”

She says instructors are eager to get practice tests to prepare students, which are not due out until September. But the conversion is well underway, and the state is not actively looking at other vendors.

“We’ve sunk our heels in here,” Smith says.

Virginia has decided to go with the GED test because it was the most developed assessment and had name recognition, according to Debbie Bergtholdt, the state GED test administrator. Moving to computers hasn’t been a problem, but there is concern about the higher cost and harder material. “New is often scary for people,” she says. But just as the state adjusted to a revised test in 2002, Bergholdt says, students and instructors will adapt this time around. In New Hampshire, the state subsidizes part of the $65 that students now pay to take the GED, and concern over affordability and making a paper-based test available prompted administrators to look elsewhere. In March, the state opted to use the ETS HiSET and phase into computer-based testing.

“We have 8,000 [students] in adult education, and a good number are not ready to take a high-stakes test on a computer,” says Art Ellison, who oversees the state adult education programs. “It’s simply not fair.”

Other states, such as Massachusetts, Missouri, and Iowa, have issued requests for information and bids as they weigh the best routes to a high school equivalency credential.

In Tennessee, a task force appointed by the legislature recommended the state use both the revised GED exams and the HiSET.

“With the cost of the GED, we felt [students] needed a choice,” says Marva Doremus, the administrator of the division of adult education with the Tennessee labor department, which does not subsidize the cost of the tests for students, currently set at $55 to $75.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, says educators know that students need to be technologically proficient, but the question is more about whether centers will have the technology to administer tests.

“I hate to think of students getting different kinds of diplomas based on access to the technology to take the test. That would be a mistake,” he says.

Facing some uncertainty over the new testing in January, other states are developing alternative pathways to a high school diploma that don’t involve an assessment.

Some are looking to models such as Wisconsin’s, which offers five options tailored to different situations for students to earn credits.

Trask of the GED Testing Service says he would appeal directly to colleges and employers about why they should respect the GED credential as a national program. “We have the brand,” he says. “People assume when they take the high school equivalency test, that it is the GED.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as High School Equivalency Test Gets a Makeover


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