GED Gets A Makeover To Keep Pace With Changing Workforce

The GED test is getting an overhaul. The exam has historically served adults who have fallen through the cracks of the educational system. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, about the impact of the new GED exams.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

For more than 70 years, the GED exam has been a way for those who've slipped through the cracks of the educational system to take a test and get the equivalent of a high school degree. The GED was started to help returning World War II veterans who had left the classroom to join the war effort, a chance to finish high school and go to college. But that was a long time ago. And this year, starting January 1st, the GED test got a radical overhaul.

The changes are meant to match the higher standards of a changing workforce and new national educational requirements. In 2012, more than 700,000 people took the GED.

To hear what's changing on the test and why, as well as how these changes will affect the hundreds of thousands of potential test takers this year, we spoke with Anthony Carnevale. He's the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

DR. ANTHONY CARNEVALE: The GED, in one way or another has always been for the education system's stepchildren - the people who didn't get through the first time, or had their education interrupted for various reasons. And apart from the GIs who took enormous advantage and were very successful, it's really languished for about 25, 30 years because it's mostly been for people who for economic reasons, or other kinds of difficulty in their lives, don't make the almost effortless move through high school and then on to college.

MARTIN: So this new GED is designed to align with new educational requirements, these new Common Core standards being rolled out in school districts. But it's also said to be a better gauge of the skills needed for a more modern workforce. What does that mean? What are those new skills and how does this test measured them?

CARNEVALE: In modern economies, one of the fundamental changes has been that simply knowing something is not enough. More and more technology takes on the repetitive functions in all our work. And we're left more and more working with each other, or trying to handle exceptions - whether it's short-run production and manufacturing or dealing with individual customers, or dealing with each other.

And so, a whole set of skills, like problem solving and interpersonal skills and critical thinking - broad general skills - that you don't necessarily learn by figuring out who the first 10 presidents were.

MARTIN: So those are not things that previous iterations of the exam have tested?

CARNEVALE: Our testing system doesn't test this set of what some people call 21st century skills not really at all. Our testing system in general tests knowledge.

MARTIN: So how is this new test going to be different?

CARNEVALE: The new test is going to focus much more on the ability to use knowledge to learn more and solve problems. And what's also new here is that it's computer based. And while computer skills are not necessary to answer lots of questions, they are so much embedded in our working and daily lives that the ability to use a computer to take the test is itself a 21st century skill.

MARTIN: The new test is also said to be harder. Is that a fair characterization?

CARNEVALE: I think in the end it probably is harder. The requirements for learning have consistently grown largely because of the environments people work and live in, which tests their ability and forces them to learn more kinds of analytic thinking. So, yes, it is harder. But school is also harder than it used to be.

One of the things we've discovered with pretty strong statistical testing, is that if you give people a high standard he'll move toward it, in spite of the fact that they may start out pretty far behind.

MARTIN: So is there some recognition that while in the short run some people may be discouraged from taking the test? Or not do well on the test because of the changes that have been made. That that's OK, that in the long run it's worth it to have a test is more rigorous, that meets the standards that employers need when they're looking for people in the workforce?

CARNEVALE: The hope is that this iteration of the GED will connect to people's ambitions more powerfully than the previous GEDs did. They were somewhat academic. The new vision for the GED is much less academic and more pragmatic. So one of the things you can begin to see, if you decide to get a GED, is how it might connect you to a job you want in the real world.

MARTIN: That was Anthony Carnevale, director Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Getting students who have fallen off the educational grid ready for real-world jobs takes more than just a test. It takes training and support. Scott Emerick is the head of the Education program for the group the YouthBuild USA.

SCOTT EMERICK: We believe that having higher standards for our learners and higher expectations can help students in our programs. So that's the good part of the equation. I think the more difficult part of the new test: costs are increasing substantially; being held to a higher standard also requires that we provide more supports, in terms of the infrastructure for technology for taking a new computer-based, and certainly the new types of teaching and instructional shifts that we anticipate to be necessary for students and teachers to succeed on the new test.

MARTIN: So this test is going to cost more money. How much more money?

EMERICK: Well, it depends on different states and different jurisdictions, but roughly twice as much. You're seeing it go from somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 to $65 to $120 to $130 per test.

MARTIN: Is that going to be a deterrent, do you think?

EMERICK: Yes, I think for many test-takers the vast majority of folks taking the GED are low income. A significant increase in the test cost will actually be a challenge for a lot of test takers.

MARTIN: So this is also going to cost more when it comes to providing support, as you said - the resources, preparation, which is what you do. How do you make up the difference?

EMERICK: So, it requires more in terms of both the technology. And it certainly requires a lot more in terms of what we're providing for our educators. So, the difference between saying that GED test takers need really deep instruction from quality educators, who are receiving significant amount of professional development to teach in new ways and to make these instructional shifts, those costs are considerable. And that's for any program administrator and any educator in the country whose looking at the new test.

So making up that difference, in most instances, the gap is going to be so considerable that it won't be sufficient to make up the types of investments that we think really need to be made to perform and show the skills that are necessary on these new tests.

MARTIN: Do you think these changes were necessary? I mean do you think the GED as it was, was doing its job? Was it getting kids the kinds of jobs and professional opportunities that they were looking for?

EMERICK: I think that the world has changed since 2002 in the last version of the test. So I do think that the changes were in many ways necessary. So my big push, from what we've talk to our programs about, is that we can see the new test is an opportunity to point toward much more explicit future pathways; that the GED is a starting point, it's not an endpoint. The GED is not a terminal certificate. It becomes much more of a comma during a much longer narrative that the young person is writing for him or herself in terms of their career goals, their education goals and their goals as leaders in their community.

MARTIN: Scott Emerick, head of YouthBuild USA's Education program.

So who are some of those people who went on to accomplish those goals? We invited you to call in and share your experience if you were one of the people who use the GED to get a new start. Here are a few of the stories we heard.

BLANCA GUTIERREZ: My name is Blanca Gutierrez. I live in Burbank, Illinois and I work at a community college as a student success advisor. I was nervous about taking the GED test. I have to be honest. I didn't study at all for it. And I just remember thinking, what am I walking into? Having completed the exam, I kind of had like this - almost like an epiphany. I have this thirst for knowledge and I just kept wanting to go to school. And so I received the certificate and then I started looking into my local community college. It kind of snowballed from there.

DIVEDA BIGGINS: Hi, my name is Diveda Biggins. I am about to move to New York City and I'm a student at Columbia University. In the 8th grade, one of my teachers got so frustrated with me. She pulled me aside and she told me, you know, Diveda, school is not for you. I'm sure you'll succeed outside of school but you're not going to be successful here. I believed her and, you know, it stuck with me, and by the time I got to 9th grade I dropped out.

I fell in love with science, specifically neuroscience. I started reading the books. So I started thinking to myself, maybe I am smart. I should get my GED. So I've got the huge study guide. I looked it up - its 1,158 pages and all day I would study that book.

(LAUGHTER)

BIGGINS: The math questions are just like tripping me up left and right. There were sections where we had to do writing and that was really difficult. But I made it through.

When it really set in for me was when I got the certificate with the gold seal on it that said that I had a high school diploma. And when I saw how proud the people that loved me were. Of course, I needed it to start going to college, but also I proved to myself that I can learn and I can actually do it. I can show up and do it, and that something that I lost when I had that conversation with my teacher.

CHRIS HUNT: My name is Chris Hunt. I live in Los Angeles and I'm a TV writer. I found myself as a high school dropout working the lowest of the low kind of jobs you could do. All manual labor, and you come home with just a little bit of money and covered in dirt. And, yes, I went and got a GED. It was in Mesquite, Texas, home of the world championship rodeo. And I remember standing there like still covered in dirt.

And it's easy to go into a GED program and feel intimidated and then walk away and never do it. I just went in there and it was pretty basic but, you know, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world. The stars aligned for me and then I went to college, and now I'm - yeah, it's a crazy difference.

I live in L.A. now and I'm a writer. I have TV projects that we're pushing. I have a literary agent, a manager. I think the GED definitely helped me. I still appreciate dirt. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HUNT: You got to stick to the root, you know?

MARTIN: That was Chris Hunt. We also heard from Blanca Gutierrez and Veda Biggins, talking about the GED exam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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