College & Workforce Readiness

Passing Score Lowered on New GED Exam

By Catherine Gewertz — January 26, 2016 4 min read

The GED Testing Service has decided to lower the passing score for its high-school-equivalency exam, a move brought on by data showing that students who passed the latest, tougher version of the test were doing better in college than high school graduates.

The move will allow states to lower the passing score on each section of the GED exam from 150 to 145 out of 200. The GED Testing Service projects that if all states choose to use the new lower passing score, 100,000 more people could pass one or more subjects of the test, and 25,000 of them could be eligible for a GED credential by passing all four sections.

The company recommended that states grant retroactive passage to test-takers who failed with the previous score of 150, but each state can decide for itself. States are expected to release details Jan. 26 about how they’ll handle the change.

GED pass rates dropped significantly after Pearson and the American Council on Education, which make the test, released a more difficult version in January 2014 to reflect the Common Core State Standards. Fewer people are taking the GED test, too, and more are taking new, competing high-school-equivalency tests: the HiSET, by the Educational Testing Service, and the TASC, by McGraw-Hill Education CTB.

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 harder. Lowering the passing score “is a move in the right direction,” he said.

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

Midcourse Adjustments

Not all states confer diplomas for GED passage, but those that do could decide to award them retroactively. Georgia is one such state: It will grant diplomas to students who failed the GED with a cut score of 150, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first disclosed news last week of the GED’s passing-score revision.

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 did those who earned high school diplomas.

In Oregon’s community colleges, for example, 15 percent of GED-passers needed remediation in reading or writing in 2014-15, compared with 47.5 percent of those who earned high school diplomas. Thirty-nine percent of GED-passers needed remedial work in math, compared with 62 percent of recent high school graduates. The GED Testing Service noted a similar pattern in Rhode Island and in North Dakota.

The GED Testing Service aims to set its passing score 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, though, the idea that the company erred when it set the original cutoff 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,” he said, “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 itself is unchanged.

Along with the lower passing score, the GED Testing Service is introducing another change. 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 scorers 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 that students automatically earn three credits in math, three in science, three in social studies, and one in language arts, Turner said. It isn’t yet known whether colleges will opt to grant credit for such GED scores.

Ten percent of the 400,000 people who have taken the GED since January 2014 have scored 175 or higher in one or more subjects, Turner said.

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

“None of us wants to present unnecessary new barriers to adult students,” he said. “But at the same time, we all think there needs to be high standards. Having healthy debate about that is something we need to continually do.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Passing Score Lowered on Latest Revision of GED Exam


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