Ed Alert: The GED Goes Private

By Mich Levy, Lee Gargagliano, Annika Butler-Wall

Selling Off Second Chances

Across Oakland, California, residents have been bombarded with billboards featuring celebrities urging them to get their high school equivalency credential by passing the GED. The billboards went up just as Oakland’s public education system for adults was being dismantled and the GED test itself was being privatized, computerized, and made significantly more difficult.

Jan. 1, 2014, marked the introduction of a new version of the GED, the test originally developed to help World War II veterans transition to college or employment, and administered by the nonprofit American Council on Education (ACE). In 2011, riding the privatization wagon, ACE went into partnership with testing giant Pearson VUE. The new, trademarked GED is harder, aligned with the Common Core, must be taken on a computer, and comes with a new price tag of $120 per test-taker, as opposed to about $70 for the old version. Proponents of the new test argue that it better reflects what test-takers will encounter in colleges and workplaces.

Unfortunately, while the GED becomes more difficult and less accessible, the severe cutbacks in adult education funding in Oakland are part of a national trend. Federal funding for adult education programs has dropped for the last four years, falling to pre-2005 levels in 2013. The 25 percent reduction in students served by adult education programs over the last decade may drop further as programs struggle to retrain teachers and purchase the computers required for the new GED.

In past years, approximately 700,000 students have taken the GED annually. The impact of the cuts to adult education programs and the privatization of the GED will disproportionately affect poor communities of color, immigrants, and individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated. In 2009, 44.8 percent of people who took the GED in the United States were African American or Latina/o although the two groups account for only 30 percent of the overall population. The GED is also a vital tool for immigrants who have diplomas issued elsewhere that are not recognized in the United States.

A significant proportion of GED candidates are in prison, where passing may be a condition for parole. For those currently incarcerated, lack of access to computers and the higher-priced test will be a major impediment. Studies point to the positive impact of passing the GED on recidivism and employment rates for formerly incarcerated people. For example, according to a University of Missouri study, after release, 59 percent of those who earned their GED while incarcerated had full-time jobs compared to 46 percent who had not; in New York recidivism rates fell from 37 percent to 32 percent for those who had obtained their GED while in custody.

States are scrambling to deal with the higher price and required computers of the new GED. Competing exams are cropping up, including the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) from the nonprofit Educational Testing Service and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) from for-profit CTB/McGraw-Hill, both of which cost about $50. As many as 40 states have signed on or are exploring alternatives to the ACE/Pearson GED. One more feeding frenzy in the ever-expanding testing market.

Mich Levy teaches English to students preparing for the GED. Lee Gargagliano teaches social studies and math to students preparing for the GED. Annika Butler-Wall is the editorial intern at Rethinking Schools.