RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One year ago, the GED got a makeover. That famous high school equivalency test was rewritten to line up with the Common Core State Standards. The new test has to be taken on computer, and the price jumped. This time last year, critics worried that lots of Americans would give up on the new GED test because they couldn't afford it or pass it. As Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team reports, they were right.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: To understand the new GED, you have to understand what it used to be - an American institution born of patriotism and pragmatism.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: These are the guys who helped win it for us against the Nazis, and the entire nation welcomes them home.
TURNER: The GED began during World War II to help returning U.S. troops into the work force. It quickly became an important alternative for veterans and nonveterans alike looking for work without a diploma. The GED became a household name - the go-to test, no matter where you lived. It's been updated, but not often, just five times. And no one seemed to make much of the first four. It's the last update for 2014 that's kicked up a storm.
ELIZABETH HANSON: Right now, all it's doing is destroying lives.
TURNER: Elizabeth Hanson teaches at a community college in Shoreline, Washington and spent several years teaching GED courses. She made up her mind about the new test after she took a practice version.
HANSON: Lo and behold, master's degree teacher of 30 years, I couldn't pass the test.
TURNER: Hanson's also angry because in many states, the price has roughly doubled, and the GED is no longer run solely by the nonprofit American Council on Education. For the first time, the ACE teamed up with for-profit testing giant Pearson and created the GED Testing Service, all of which raises the question, why?
NICOLE CHESTANG: The education system has heaped a lot on the GED test.
TURNER: That's Nicole Chestang, a vice president at ACE. She says the big reason behind their update was that too many people who had passed the old test were approaching employers and saying...
CHESTANG: I've got a credential here that says I'm prepared, and for those same employers to say no you're not.
TURNER: In short, she says, their old test just wasn't an accurate measure of what today's high school graduates know or need to know. But that argument, along with the price hike, has been a tough sell. The GED Testing Service admits it saw a sizable decrease in 2014 in both test-takers and graduates. Miles Newman helps coordinate GED prep for one school district in Lexington County, South Carolina.
MILES NEWMAN: Our number of graduates for this last calendar year has dropped about 85 percent.
TURNER: Eighty-five percent, and it's a similar story in many other places. Newman and the folks behind the GED say part of that drop was to be expected because lots of people afraid of the new test rushed to take the old one. But Newman believes the drop is mostly because this new test is harder. He supports the idea of raising standards, but worries about the people who won't pass this new test or, worse yet, won't even bother trying.
NEWMAN: Are we going to, like, drop back now and say, OK, we made a big mistake and the GED is too tough, so we're going to make it easier, now? (Laughter).
TURNER: That's probably not going to happen. But what is happening is that states, including South Carolina, are turning to new competitor tests that have popped up, giving test-takers a choice. Ten other states have replaced the GED entirely. And that means for the first time, someone in, say, Boston or Baton Rouge hoping for a second chance on a high school equivalency diploma won't have to pass the GED. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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