New GED testing requires computer skills, more knowledge

Adults who dropped out of school will have to dig deeper to pass the new GED, which was revamped this year for the first time since 2002.

Rather than answer multiple-choice questions on paper, test-takers have to solve interactive math problems, analyze social studies passages and demonstrate critical thinking through essay responses on a computer.

“How many apples and oranges? That’s not the kind of question that employers ask anymore,” said Lynn Bartlett, principal at San Juan Unified School District’s Sunrise Tech Center.

“Our instructional model is changing to match the new reality, the new vocabulary,” Bartlett said. “So when students earn the GED, it says they’ve accomplished something that’s needed in today’s economy and workplace.”

Statewide, more than 5.5 million adults lack a high school credential, according to GED Testing Service, a joint venture of the American Council on Education and test company Pearson VUE. The General Educational Development test dates back to 1942, when ACE created an exam to enable troops without high school diplomas to pursue jobs or attend college after their service.

Advocates say the computer test is a leap forward from the old fill-in-the-bubble exams. They are compatible with Common Core State Standards rolling out in K-12 schools across most of the nation, which emphasize problem-solving over memorization.

A previous version of the GED might have asked students to calculate the percentage of trees cut down in a forest, said C.T. Turner, spokesman for GED Testing Service.

“On the new test, you’ll get text that will talk about deforestation and the impact it presents (and) if there was a policy to do X-Y-Z, how would that impact deforestation?” Turner said.

In Elk Grove, Hong Nguyen said she delayed taking the test because she wanted to learn English first. The 40-year-old immigrated to the United States from Vietnam a decade ago.

Now, just as GED questions have grown in difficulty, she is studying for the tests in language arts, math, social studies and science.

“The new GED is so hard,” she said.

Nguyen eventually wants to attend college, study business and open a restaurant.

“I just want to get a job and help my family,” said Nguyen, whose daughters are 8 and 4. “I think education is very important.”

Derrell Roberts, co-founder of the nonprofit Roberts Family Development Center in Sacramento, dedicated to helping families, said the new test will be difficult for many low-income applicants.

“Many people who will be taking this test will not have been in an educational venue for quite some time,” Roberts said. “What it’s going to require is more support for those people to pass the GED.”

Roberts said he plans to be “an advocate for additional funding for places like the (Greater Sacramento) Urban League” to help people with the added preparation.

High school dropouts flooded GED exam sites last year, trying to pass the traditional paper version before the new test took hold. More than 63,000 adults swamped California GED exam sites – up 17.5 percent from 2012 – in an attempt to complete the tests before the close of the year. More than two-thirds of the test-takers succeeded, according to the state Department of Education.

Some of California’s largest school districts, including Sacramento City Unified and Los Angeles Unified, have since closed their GED testing facilities. The transformation in GED testing follows a difficult financial stretch for many districts during which adult education programs took a beating.

“With the significant cuts to adult education over the past few years – $12.5 million in total – we didn’t have the funds to purchase computers and meet all of the specifications that Pearson VUE required to become a testing site,” Sacramento school district spokesman Gabe Ross said.

Facing a fiscal squeeze, some test administrators last year asked the state to approve paper-based alternatives, said Diane Hernandez of the California Department of Education. Those conversations led to a decision “to move forward with other options,” she said.

The state Board of Education in the coming months is expected to invite other test vendors, such as Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, to present new high school equivalency exams they are developing, Hernandez said. If the board approves a new paper test for California, it could be available for use in California by year’s end, she said.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, said he believes the transition to the 2014 test will be a challenge for individuals not accustomed to computer testing and not prepared to tackle the more difficult content.

“We do use the GED for students in court and community schools and some of the adults we serve in parole and probation re-entry programs,” he said.

Other states, he said, already have adopted paper tests with different content than Pearson VUE requires. “If and when that test comes out (in California), we would certainly take a close look at that.”

In recent years, nearly 200 California sites and another 300 satellite locations administered the GED test on paper. So far, 59 testing centers offer the new computer test and another 56 are gearing up, according to the state Department of Education.

Joyce Lude, principal of Roseville Adult School, said that six months ago she was worried about the transition from paper to computer.

But after the school began pilot testing the computer approach in November, Lude quickly saw the new system would be more efficient. Schools would no longer need huge paper inventories. They could avoid mailing tests for grading. Students could receive results immediately afterward. And the danger of filling in a paper bubble from the wrong test question is nil.

“We’ll be able to test more students in the computer-based formats because we can have students doing different tests in the session,” Lude said. “It used to be we had to have a whole session on science or math. Now, as soon as one person is done, another one can get on that computer. It’s much more efficient.”

Besides Roseville, the tests are being offered locally at adult schools in the Woodland Joint Unified School District, Placer School for Adults in Auburn and the Nevada Union Adult Education, according to the GED Testing Services website.

Others in the pipeline include the adult schools in the San Juan and Folsom Cordova districts. The Elk Grove Unified School District site is scheduled to open next month, said Karen Malkiewicz, principal of Elk Grove Adult and Community Education for the district.

Vanessa Solorio of Placerville joined about a dozen other students in a GED preparation class last week at the Roseville Adult School. This year will mark her second attempt at a GED certificate.

“I have to take everything again,” said Solorio, who passed three of the five tests required in 2013.

Solorio, 32, said she’s not discouraged. She plans to study to become a nurse.

“I want a better future,” she said. “I was working in a restaurant. I was a dishwasher. I saw it was very hard not to have an education.”